Suffering and Hope

Sarah Richards
December 3, 2017

Suffering and Hope

What is hope? According to Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alves,
“It is a presentiment that imagination is more real /and reality less real /than it looks.”[i]

Hope depends on the power of imagination, and using our imagination to re-think reality. As a Buddhist teacher says, “Anxiety is looking at the future and considering all the things that could go wrong….The antidote is looking at the future considering all the things that could go right…So don’t worry. Be hopey!”[ii]

I wonder if you or someone you know is a hoper rather than a worrier. I tend to be in the latter category, but my mom is definitely a ‘make lemonade’ sort. One old family story shows that it’s not only future orientation, but also imagination applied to the present moment that makes a hopey person. We were traveling across the plains of Nebraska, in the middle of a long, long car ride, after exhausting all of the reading, and singing, and cemetery on my side road games. We kids were tired and bored and grouchy, and began complaining about how boring the scenery was, and how ugly. There was nothing of note as far as the eye could see…Mom broke into our gripe-fest to point out a lone wind-swept tree in the distance, declaring it beautiful. Well, I’d like to say that we complimented the tree and saw our environment with new eyes, the eyes of hopeful reality. But we ridiculed the tree and Mom’s vision of it, stuck as we were in the “reality” of barren ugliness we had constructed. And you know something, I don’t think that that stuckness is unique to bored kids on long Midwestern road trips, do you?

In fact, our childish cynicism, and the adult versions can be seen as a “shadow side” of Unitarian Universalist ideals of reason and pursuit of truth, when we value skepticism and being right over kindness and being in right relationship. (To be clear, I am in no way criticizing the ideals of reason and pursuit of truth, but rather when we value skepticism and being right over kindness and being in right relationship.) Author Krista Tippett writes, “My mind inclines now, more than ever, towards hope. I’m consciously shedding the assumption that a skeptical point of view is the most intellectually credible. Intellect does not function in opposition to mystery; tolerance is not more pragmatic than love; and cynicism is not more reasonable than hope. Unlike almost every worthwhile thing in life, cynicism is easy. It’s never proven wrong by the corruption or the catastrophe. It’s not generative. It judges things as they are, but does not lift a finger to try to shift them.”[iii]

There is no shortage of things in our present moment that we can be skeptical of, and there is an abundance of cynicism about the future, so much so that to contemplate what it means to be a people of hope is a real challenge, maybe the biggest challenge we face as a covenanted community. On the other hand, constant skepticism and cynicism is pretty exhausting, not to mention depressing, and, as Tippett and innumerable theologians and philosophers have pointed out, no more realistic or reasonable way of being than hope. Recognizing that hope is a muscle to be strengthened through active practice is a moves us out of exhausting stuckness, and toward growth. If you’ve got a practice that exercises your hope muscle, please share it – come up write it on a star for our banner, or tell us about it during coffee hour, or get out your phone and post it to Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #CUFhope.

Alves’ poem’s next line says hope “is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress is not the last word.[iv]” We all know stories of phoenix-like people or groups who rise from the ashes, who keep believing and hoping and doing despite an overwhelming brutality of facts. Urban gardeners in post-industrial, ravaged Detroit, who began their plots as survival strategies, have inspired a movement across the U.S. One gardener says, “We’re not just growing food, we’re becoming part of this process of existence in the whole ecological system that exists not just in the garden, but has existed since the beginning. We’re developing a humanistic practice.”[v] What makes such stories—and experiences– of hope so compelling is that they begin from failure, and they are never a straight line to success; there is no “happily ever after” but “the struggle continues.” Tippett writes, “What goes wrong for us as much as what goes right – what we know to be our flaws as much as what we know to be our strengths – these make hope reasonable and lived virtue possible.[vi]” If you’ve gained hope through struggle or failure, please tell us about it – write it on your star or talk about it during coffee hour, or put it on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #CUFhope.

Alves sees a sort of yin-yang relationship between suffering and hope, he says the two “live from each other. /Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair, /hope without suffering creates illusions, naiveté, and drunkenness . . .”[vii]

I am thinking now of stories I’ve read in our local paper about the suffering of people in Southern Illinois, and some who have the imagination and perseverance to see things, and do things, to work toward a vision of sustainability and flourishing – in Cairo, where public housing residents have organized and are raising their voices for change. At SIU, where faculty, students, and alumni of the threatened Africana Studies program, joined by community members, argued for its retention and support. In Carbondale and neighboring communities, the Southern Illinois Immigrant Rights Project is working to change attitudes and policies to appreciate and protect human and civil rights of immigrants. Here at CUF, folks in the Social Action and LGBTQ+ Welcoming Congregation Committees are working within and beyond the congregation to move toward our UU and congregational goals of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Really, anything we do in our lives to fulfill the covenant we’ve made in our principles makes us a people of hope, exercises that hope muscle, expands our imagination. If you are part of creating hope for the future of CUF or our wider community, please tell us about it. Write it on your star or talk about it during coffee hour, or put it on Facebook, or Twitter with the hashtag #CUFhope.


Friends, there is no shortage of things in our present moment to be inspired by, and there is an abundance of possibility for the future. Let us not get stuck in despair, neither become comfortable in corrosive cynicism. Let us look for the stories and the people that make us aspire to act by their model, and by doing, inspire each other. Let us calm down and take the long view, as the poet Alves invites us:
“Let us plant dates
even though those who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let the creative act be dissolved
in immediate sense experience
and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren.”[viii]

May we exercise the secret discipline of hope in this moment, and in our commitment to the future.


[i] Accessed 11/25/17.

[ii] Brahm, Ajahn. Don’t Worry, Be Grumpy. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2014, p. 195.

[iii] Tippet, Krista. Becoming Wise: an Inquiry into the Art and Mystery of Living, by Krista Tippet, New York: Penguin Press, 2016, p. 236.

[iv] Accessed 11/25/17.

[v] Thompson, Myrtle and Wayne Curtis. Interview excerpt in Becoming Wise: an Inquiry into the Art and Mystery of Living, by Krista Tippet, New York: Penguin Press, 2016, p. 245.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Accessed 11/25/17.

[viii] Ibid.