Ironically I suppose, I grew up deep in the rural areas of the former Ciskei, the youngest child of a trader whose isiXhosa name was “uZanethemba” or “Bringer of Hope”. Our shop was known as the “Good Hope Trading Store.” I honestly haven’t given much thought to this fact for more than 30 years, but lately it seems significant. A declaration, a prophesy even. Names are important in all cultures and in the Xhosa culture more than most. So I will claim for myself the right to be known as the youngest child of Hope. I plan to wear that name as a mantle. (Or a cape, maybe? I have always had a particular weakness for capes….)
I have been reading, thinking and asking ordinary people about their thoughts around hope. What is hope, and what does it mean and who has it and how do you get it? And is it even worth having, anyway or is it just a waste of time to entertain it? And this is what I know so far:
Put very simply, hope is the firm belief that things will be better in the future than they are now. Faith that the best is yet to come. I think maybe that the best form of hope believes that the future will be better in certain critical respects for everyone, (not just materially better for me). Maybe we can refer to the former as universal hope as opposed to the latter more common, garden variety, of self-absorbed hope.
Astonishingly, a lot of very clever people (who could have made loads more money doing something more practical) have been studying hope for a long time. There are academics who have produced entire doctorates on hope. And there are a lot of things they know and some they don’t and the jury is still out on certain hope-related issues. But one thing is undisputed: Being hopeful is really splendid for your mental and physical wellbeing. It’s one of those game changers that will determine your capacity to survive and really thrive or even make it through an apocalypse. Sort of like being grateful, eating your greens, getting enough sleep, being able to forage efficiently and not being too seriously into substance abuse. Just better. In fact, hope is a critical part of that mindset that drives resilient behavior and is a crucial ingredient for producing the fabulous neurological pathways and Lego blocks necessary for creating vasbyt. (And we South Africans know better than most that without a decent dose of resilience we are all pretty much buggered.)
The other thing we know for sure is that hope is primarily a choice, it is a skill/attribute that can be developed with tools and practice. Its not like you have it or you don’t, tough luck if it’s the latter. Cultivating hope is possible and it comes highly recommended if you aspire to healthy future. Even if you aren’t usually much inclined toward that sort of airy fairy frivolity and are naturally more prone to hardcore cynicism – you should consider getting some hope if you want to stick around and stay in good shape physically and mentally. Apparently.
Interestingly, hope has not so much to do with the reality of your actual circumstances and more to do with your mindset and your conscious choices. Particular people are able to articulate a robust sense of hope even in the face of personal tragedy, concentration camps, cancer wards, ghettos, debtors court and post-Zuma South Africa. Their hope seems to be determined more by human connection and a sense of purpose (real or even imagined) than by the situation in which they actually find themselves. From my own experience, from every person I have spoken to and every article I have read it seems that people who are hopeful say more or less the same thing: When we connect with other people in a meaningful way (especially those people who we are meant to fear/resent or who are supposedly responsible for making us doubtful of our hope in the first place) we are able to feel encouraged and optimistic despite our (often dire) realities. On the other hand, when we withdraw from these people in fear or distaste or rage, we feel the very opposite of hope. If we huddle with our worst fears and engage only with the people who share those fears, hope becomes an impossibility.
When I set off from my home in East London to begin my 6 772km self powered journey (largely alone and on foot), around the perimeter of South Africa I had no choice but to connect with the people I encountered. My mother was hysterical with anxiety about my safety. She was fearful that I would be raped or murdered and flung into a ditch within the first week. So in order to make her feel better I took a taser with me and I had one of my brother’s fashion a holster for it, which could be fixed to the strap of my backpack. This enabled me to have it on quickdraw/speedial: if anyone approached me looking threatening I could immediately draw my taser and electrocute them. I was quite excited really. I had never tasered anyone before and so I fantasized about who my first victim would be. However, within 3 days I had tossed it into the back of the bakkie not to be used again other than to deter the vervets. The humidity along the Wild Coast rendered it useless but more importantly my connection with the people rendered it unnecessary. In 148 days on the road (and for years before and since) I never once experienced anything other than the most incredible hospitality, kindness, goodwill and genuine concern and care for my wellbeing from every single South African I met. Through connecting I experienced the opposite of what many people imagined. I was provided with food, water, directions, encouragement, company and accommodation. I was welcomed into farmhouses and fed and watered in huts, shebeens and spaza shops. I had two young Xhosa men lead me for hours along the Wild Coast cliffs in the dark to ensure I arrived safely at my destination. I had an old man take my hand in a shebeen in Mpumalanga and tell me I was as welcome in his village as if I was his own daughter. My experience of daily connection with everybody I passed was both humbling and exhilarating and has given me a belief in the goodness of my countrymen and women that borders on radical hope.
So when the obligatory negativity about the dismal future of South Africa begins around the braai or the boardroom table, I feel deeply compelled to interrupt the narrative with the words of Archbishop Williams. He articulates my own thoughts so perfectly when he explains: “I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic: I’m massively hopeful. You see an optimist says it’s all going to turn out right. A pessimist says it’s all going to turn out wrong. But a hopeful person says it’s possible we can make it better.”
And that is a place that I am excited to proceed from because I believe with all my heart that it is possible that we can make things better.
Being pessimistic or even optimistic is self-absorbed (things are going to be great/terrible for me). They are also fundamentally passive states of being. Being hopeful is the opposite. Hope is not passive. Hope is a verb. Hope demands action.
Making things better (for everyone, not just for me) requires connection and it insists that I should get my hands dirty, it entails expending some effort and some sacrifice. (Even some voluntary redistribution of tightly clutched resources maybe?) Educating a child, teaching a skill, mentoring a youth, building a house, planting a garden, donating a piece of land….
Doing stuff to make it better rather than just speaking about it or waiting for someone (politicians, big business, someone whose better at being an adult than me) to make it better.
So every day, and especially on the days when my hope wavers or I feel doubtful or fearful or when I am confronted by fear mongering or electioneering or fake news or awful sensational reports of crime and corruption and conflict (told often with unnecessary relish) I remind myself of my own experiences of connection and I make a conscious effort to go towards the people and the places I am meant to fear. To engage rather than to withdraw. Because if I withdraw there is no option other than to huddle with my worst fears. Every day I go out into my community and I engage at every opportunity, I speak to people in the SARS and the ATM and post office queue, I sit on the floor at the state hospital with my domestic worker and I visit my staff in their communities and I connect with people. I cycle and run through rural villages, I give strangers lifts and I ask them about their lives and build relationships and give and receive help and every day instead of being rejected or mugged I have my hope and my faith restored. And every day I have my perspective realigned and I am grateful and humbled because every day I see that I have a chance to make things better for me by making things better for someone other than me. And every day I see that good, hard-working honest South Africans (who are doing the best they can) are in the vast majority and that they are working towards the same goal. And so I remain pathologically hopeful about this beautiful country we all call home. Even when the cynics roll their eyes at my naiveté and tell me that will all change when I’m a victim of poverty or violent crime. Because it hasn’t, and it won’t. Because hope doesn’t depend on circumstances it depends on connection and it depends on me.
There are so many challenges facing us, both collectively and individually. And it’s particularly easy to become immobilized by the enormity of these challenges. A serious evil was allowed to take place here and it has resulted in on-going hardship and pain for the majority of our people. And although we may not have even been alive when it started we are nevertheless compelled to strive (hopefully, calmly and intentionally) to do everything we can to prevent that hardship and pain (which hasn’t gone away and isn’t going to unless we make it) from following us into the next generations. And we should acknowledge that this is difficult, and that we are sometimes afraid and immobilized by the enormity of it all. But this shouldn’t stop us from having hope because we are a nation of people who epitomize creativity and vasbyt/nyamezela and that fabulous “boermaaknplan’ness” that we do so well. Eliminating the hardship and the pain is not something that can be done exclusively through government policy. It is not something “somebody should do something about”. It is my responsibility. And yours. We need to initiate this process ourselves and then participate wholeheartedly in it without swinging between idealism and bitter realism. And we should start today where we are with what we’ve got. And we should do so as if our lives and our hope depend on it. Because they do.
It seems that hopeful people:
• are proactive
• take responsibility for making things better (for everyone) where they are with what they’ve got
• articulate their fears and then consciously strive to debunk them.
• see an incident of crime or corruption as an isolated event and don’t make sweeping generalizations and write off entire population/gender groups.
• express gratitude
• are outward focused
• wish for (and work for) a better future for everyone (not just for themselves)
Some fabulous quotes from the people I asked about hope:
“connection is hope …
Hope is offering an 80 year old Makhulu my seat while awaiting a delayed flight, and having her affectionately ask “ithini isiduko sako kwedini?* after rejecting my offer with a condescending smile and twinkle in her eye.”
*(what is your clan name youngster?)
“ Hope is the small stuff the stuff most people don’t even notice, the smile from a stranger, the wave from a pedestrian, the kindness from a stranger. In order to see and feel hope you have to be present and awake. Hearts open, listening to your surroundings, observing and tasting our environments and definitely connecting. You will not find hope on your phone or TV. Hope requires you to engage and connect with your people and other people. Hope is very important without it what is there?”
“Hope is connecting with a young man who has grown up in poverty whose father is an alcoholic and whose rock solid mother is a domestic worker who says “Aunty I want you to help me set some goals to take my life from zero to hero. I want you to help me to be a better man.” Hope is the privilege of having him ask for my help, of being trusted to have his best interests at heart with no agenda of my own. Hope is knowing that my life is better if I can instil some hope in his future.”
“I am hopeful that things can improve – here and globally. I am frequently blown away by the sheer goodness of friends, strangers and ordinary super heroes going about in faith everyday. I am also hopeful because of the creative brilliance of the young people I meet. I believe they have the minds and potential to bring a better world into being if we support them. I have been thinking a lot about how to keep my own kids’ hope intact – because we are all faced with the stark realities of where we are on earth at the moment every day. The idealist in me hopes that the 99 percent of light in us can somehow overcome the 1 percent of very dense darkness – and I suppose to do that, we have to be leaders and do the best we can do in whatever we do with all of our being every day.”
“Hope for me is when someone has the courage to stand up and say – NO – enough of this! When Cheryl Zondi takes the stand and says “I will no longer keep quiet”, when brave students say “My rapist should not be graduating with me today.” I feel hope when men say ” I’m sorry women feel like that – and how do we make it better?” And I have hope when I hear my 15 year old daughter challenge a racist comment made by an adult…and I have hope when the underdog wins. And then of course when the sun rises in the morning…”