Hope . . . is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. . . . It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
These words come from “the great Czech playwright turned dissident turned president, Vaclav Havel.” And the phrase I just quoted, as well as the larger quote above, comes from the amazing newsletter by Maria Popova called brainpickings.
If you haven’t yet discovered brainpickings, I recommend both reading and supporting it. I promise Maria Popova will enlarge your life or, at the very least, your mind.
But here is the question Havel’s words left me with. How can those of us who write for children do our work without hope? For that matter, how does anyone write anything for anyone without hope? I can’t imagine, day after day, finding the energy to gather words of despair. And what would be the point of putting them out into the world?
I’m not talking about cheerfulness or false reassurance when I speak of hope, and Havel isn’t either. I’m talking about something deeper, harder . . . harder to come by, maybe. Certainly harder to live.
I’m talking about a hope nutritious enough to feed to children.
If you, as I do, look out at our world—our spiraling-out-of-control climate, our spiraling-out-of-control political system, our spiraling-out-of-control wars—and find yourself filled with apprehension, then how do you put all that aside to write a picture book for the most tender of the young? Or even a novel for teens?
What do we have to say?
Duck? Disaster is on its way?
I’ve been struggling with that question lately. The truth is that my view of our world has never been a confident one, and I have struggled with that lack of confidence my entire career. I have come up with two very simple answers. (Let the simplicity of my answers serve as warning. For better and for worse—and it is both—I have been gifted with a reductionist mind.)
The first answer I have found is to turn outward. I mean truly outward. Lately I have been reading books about the Universe in all its mystery, about the stars, about quantum mechanics. I don’t understand all I read. Truth be told, I understand only a fraction of it. But it fills me with wonder. It fills me with “Wow!” And that, that “Wow!”, is what I want to bring to my life and to my writing.
My second answer is the opposite, to turn inward. Profoundly inward. To find the deepest truths of relationships, the deepest truths of my own heart. And to carry those into my life, my work. Because such truths can never be about despair, no matter how much pain they may hold. Such truths embody healing at their very core.
Havel also said this:
The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Havel says, “Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul.” But I don’t think he means that hope is something we a born with like brown eyes or a sunny disposition.
Hope is something we must teach ourselves, day after day after day. And once we have a firm hold on it, then—and only then—can we be privileged to carry our hope to the young.