Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008...1:58 am

Do We Have To Choose Between Hope And Reality?

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To many people Obama represents hope for a better world. For others, the hope for a better world represented by Obama is a deception that masks a reluctance to face reality.

Let’s forget about Obama for a moment and look instead at the deeper contrast between the promise of hope and the disappointments of reality. Interestingly, this contrast between hope and reality is foundational in the human psyche and dates at least as far back as early Greek mythology.

Hesiod, tells the story of the twin Titans—Prometheus, who looked ahead and thus can be seen as a metaphor for liberal progress, and Epimetheus, who looked backwards while running ahead, and thus can be seen as a metaphor for social conservatism. Epimetheus was supposed to give a positive trait to every animal, but because he was constantly looking backwards, he gave all the positive traits away too soon and thus had nothing left to give to man. To make up for his mistake, his brother, Prometheus, stole fire (representing technology) from Zeus and gave it to man.

When Zeus found out he was furious. In a touch that lucidly captures the sexism that is at the heart of European culture, he ordered the first woman created in order to get back at man. Her name was Pandora, and she was full of deception and treachery but so beautiful that even the gods were “seized by wonder” when they saw her. Zeus gave her an enticing box full of curses—Pandora’s box—and sent her down to the world of man. Epimetheus, ignoring his brother’s foresightful warning not to accept any gifts from Zeus, embraced Pandora and opened the box, whereupon the curses flew out and infected human life with toil, misery, suffering, disease, and death. Unfortunately, the one salve—hope—remained in the box, hidden under the lid, leaving humans to endure the greatest suffering without expectation of improvement.

People today who see in Obama the hope for a better world are the heirs of this myth. They see hope as good and essential, an elixir that makes a struggle against an evil system possible. Rather than leave it hidden in the box, it must be brought out and shared.

Interestingly, an alternative version of the myth was presented by Theognis of Megara. In his telling, Pandora’s Box contained many blessings but only one curse—hope. When the box was opened, all the blessings escaped back to Mt. Olympus, leaving only “hope” in the box. With the blessings gone, people’s ability to understand was weakened and their courage to question diluted, making them easy to manipulate by “good-seeming” evil. The situation was so bad that humanity would have rebelled, but “hope” raised the expectation that the next leader would make things better, thereby tricking humanity into accepting the crushing burden of impossible circumstances.

People today who see clearly the curses of our system—its heartless cruelty and cunning exploitation artfully cloaked in layers of deception and illusion—are the heirs of this version of the myth. Seeing hope as a cruel seductress, they do not accept its sweet promises and struggle valiantly against the system of exploitation, deception, and death without the false promises of hope.

So here we find in the primeval mythological foundations of Western civilization, the dynamics of the argument over Obama. Is hope a good thing (believing in Obama helps us to join together to be the change we want to see)…or a bad thing (believing in Obama only opens us to the same curses in a different disguise)?

This struggle between expectant hope and cruel reality can be found in daily discussions and blog postings about Obama. Again and again the crux of the discussion is whether believing in Obama sustains us as we work to change how things are…or blinds us to cruel reality of how the system operates. Frequently, those who believe in the hope Obama brings tend to view others who give voice to truths about how the system works as being negative and obstructionist. Conversely, those who see hope as a deceiver tend to view others who believe in the hope Obama brings as being delusional and even child-like.

So who is right? Hegel once remarked that the deep and passionate conflicts of our lives are portrayed in melodrama as a struggle between right and wrong and in the more mature form of tragedy as a struggle between two different views of the right. In that sense, this conflict is tragic: that is, both sides are right.

Let me, therefore, try to frame the conflict differently. Nothing comes without a hazard. Sustaining hope that a better world is possible comes with the hazard that one could become resistant to the details of the dark truth of how the system actually works. Conversely, knowing the dark details of how the system actually works comes with the hazard that one could lose hope that a better world is possible. The spiritual challenge of today, therefore, is to have BOTH the dark facts about the world that is while simultaneously sustaining the bright hope for a world that could be.

Now back to Obama….

1 Comment

  •   Jonathan G. Muller
    December 10th, 2008 at 10:57 pm    

    Hope is like love or compassion, in their pure state you can never have too much. The problem rather, comes with the idea of love or the idea of hope, and the seemingly all too inevitable attachment that follows.

    Like the naive young college student or soon to be bride, we must be careful not to link our happiness to external events. If we do, we set ourselves up for heartbreak and failure. When that much anticipated event comes and goes, we are then struck by a reality that does not live up to the fantasy we had been projecting upon it.

    If we use our hope of Obama in this way, then it is a bad thing. It then becomes nothing more than one more distraction that prevents us from working towards the good.

    It does not have to be this way though. If kept in the proper perspective, hope for a transcendent figure like Obama can serve as inspiration for us all to look inside ourselves and become the change we want to see in this world.

    We must always remember that the door for change in an individual opens only from the inside. That being said though, here is to hoping that Obama can knock loudly enough for many to hear…

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