Hope in the Dark

Rebecca Solnit

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, a alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what is may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

Necessary post-election reading. Rebecca Solnit wrote this book at the start of the Iraq War in 2003 so “hope” has a pre-Obama context here. While the context has evolved, much of what she says about activism and the long road of change still applies. There is some territory here that Solnit has trod at other times in her writing, as when she expands on a sentence from Virginia Woolf’s journal: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think” — a moment she also explored in Men Explain Things to Me, which was in turn adapted for a New Yorker essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”; she says of the quote:

It’s an extraordinary declaration, asserting that the unknown need not be turned into the known through false divination, or the projection of grim political or ideological narratives; it’s a celebration of darkness, willing — as that “I think” indicates — to be uncertain even about its own assertion.

That acknowledgement of uncertainty is what I appreciated most while reading this book. As in the first quote, it’s not about resting in all-out optimism or pessimism, but seeing the opening for action and the possibility to influence the status quo, not a passive acceptance of it. The statement “what we do matters” asks us directly to do something, to plant some seeds, not just sit by and wait.

Last month, Haymarket Books had a download accessible for free, but currently it’s available with a discount.