Opinion | The Case Against Hope


Footage from Sandra Bland’s ill-fated arrest in 2015 was recently released, and in it, we can see a Texas state trooper yelling at Ms. Bland with increasing ferocity. He says to her, “I will light you up.” A routine traffic stop was anything but routine. Three days after this video was taken, she was found dead in her jail cell. Police brutality remains a major threat to black and brown life. Police brutality continues to happen in plain sight. It is documented time and again, but rarely are there consequences.

In Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Missouri and several other states, elected officials have fixated on using draconian abortion legislation to control women and our bodies. When the television series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on Margaret Atwood’s disturbingly prescient novel, debuted in 2017, many of us who fight for reproductive freedom, myself included, abstained from watching it because there was nothing entertaining about a show set in a world where women have no rights, where women are chattel, only as valuable as what their wombs issue. Back then I said we weren’t that far from such a reality. I and others were told we were exaggerating, hysterical, that we were nowhere near such a possibility. And yet, here we are.

A United Nations report indicates that a million plant and animal species are in danger of extinction, as global warming continues to reshape the planet and how we live. It used to be that when we discussed global warming, we were talking about how the peril was a few generations away. Instead, the danger is now. It seems apocalyptic, but waters are rising. Weather is becoming wildly unpredictable. On the West Coast, forest fires are raging. Temperatures are rising. Glaciers are melting. Too many politicians do nothing. Too many of us do nothing. And we can no longer afford all this nothing.

I put these thoughts together recently for a commencement address, one that started with asking the question “What now?” and contemplating how hope could possibly relate to that question. I was not trying to depress anyone. I was not trying to make those graduates feel like the world is on fire but … the world is on fire both literally and figuratively. This is the world into which these new graduates are entering and the world in which they’ll begin their careers. They are going to have to grapple with all of it. And so are we.

Thinking about graduation this year, I read the news about the billionaire Robert F. Smith’s gift to the graduates of Morehouse, paying the student loans of the graduating class of 2019. His generous gift was framed as hopeful. I know that for years to come, college students will hope a billionaire is their commencement speaker and will give them the gift of the freedom from student loan debt. They will hope because really, that’s all they can do. The cost of tuition, room and board, and books is something beyond their control. Hope isn’t.

But instead of thinking about hope, I want to continue thinking about possibility. When we hope, we have no control over what may come to pass. We put all our trust and energy into the whims of fate. We abdicate responsibility. We allow ourselves to be complacent. We are all just people living our lives as best we can, aren’t we? It is easy to feel helpless. It is much harder to make ourselves uncomfortable by imagining the impossible to be possible. But we can do that. We can act, even in the smallest of ways.

Democracy is faltering. The actions of the executive branch are being insufficiently checked and balanced. Many of us have surrendered to numbness or apathy in this political moment because our politicians seem to be refusing to act in our best interests. If we are being honest, we also aren’t acting in the best interests of the people we should be serving, which is one another. No matter who we are, where we come from, what we believe, who we vote for, how we worship, we live in this world together. And so maybe we should do everything in our power to make sure things don’t get worse.

This question of “Now what?” is an important one to ask, wherever we are in our lives. One thing I didn’t say to those new graduates I addressed was “Good luck.” Luck is like hope — too far beyond our control, too ephemeral. What we really must wish for one another is the power of all that might be possible if we do anything more than hope.

Roxane Gay (@rgay) is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer.

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