According to Alexander Pope, “Hope springs eternal,” but that spring often gets plugged at this time of year. In ancient times, enemy combatants would use stones to stop up the wells and springs of a city under siege. In this way, they could force their adversaries to abandon their strategic advantage and become vulnerable.
We too become vulnerable when the springs of hope upon which we depend are stopped up. Marriage problems, health troubles, financial pressures, and job tensions are all stones that can stop up the spring of hope. COVID has been a boulder.
Years ago, the State of Maine enacted a controversial plan to generate hydro-electric power. The plan required the Corp of Engineers to dam a river, and that meant evacuating a small town that would be permanently flooded. It took years of hearings and tons of paperwork before the plan finally went into effect. Eventually, the state purchased the property from the town, and gave people ample time to find other places to live.
As soon as the decision was finalized, a fascinating thing began to happen. The once beautiful town fell into disrepair. When things stopped working, machines failed, or windows broke, the people of the town just let them go. One of the residents said, “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no work in the present.”
“Faith in the future” – that is, hope – is crucial. I once spent a few days in a small town in northern Ontario. It was one of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited. I heard a resentful Anglo townsperson complain that First Nations folks were lazy, but conversations with residents led me to another conclusion: people weren’t lazy, but some were hopeless. The two, though very different, look similar from the outside.
When the dissident Russian intellectual Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in the gulag, he became so physically weak and emotionally drained that he wanted to die. The brutal treatment, the terrible conditions, and the hard labor had overwhelmed him. He knew that if he quit working the guards would beat him, probably to death. So, one day he stopped working. He just stood still, leaned on his shovel, and waited for the end to come.
When he stopped, one of his fellow-Christians in the camp noticed. He reached over with his shovel and drew a cross in the dirt at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, then quickly smudged it up before the guard had a chance to see it. Solzhenitsyn later wrote that his entire being was energized by the sight of that cross. It was his symbol of hope.
People quit when they don’t have hope. Marriages fail, not because they are irreparable, but one or both partner is hopeless. Voters who have no hope stop going to the polls. When those struggling for justice lose hope, they surrender to the status quo.
The Christmas season exacerbates hopelessness for some people. The stones – financial pressures, relationship difficulties, job tensions, and loneliness – plug up the spring of hope. The most wonderful time of the year can be the most depressing.
Some people can almost see Dante’s line, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” written at the beginning of December in their calendar. The season most characterized by anticipation becomes for them a time of gloom. It is ironic, but it was bound to happen is a culture that has left Advent’s spiritual springs of hope to wander in the secular wasteland.
People can combat hopelessness during the holidays by refusing to isolate, overspend, or pull an all-nighter wrapping gifts. They can connect to encouraging friends and avoid the emotional pitfalls of the past. But the best thing people can do is to rediscover the true meaning and purpose of Advent.
It is, after all, what people call a “religious” season, and we should not expect to find hope in it if we treat it like a secular holiday. But those who enter fully into it find “faith in the future” or, rather, the God of the future finds them. For them, Christmas, which comes and goes almost as quickly as the cross at Solzhenitsyn feet, becomes an energizing symbol of hope.
(First published by Gannett.)