The Problem of Hope if it is a Value

Why hope?  Why place hope in the story of our lives?


Come to Elliot Bay Book Company – Tuesday, Mar 25th , 7 PM, 1521 Tenth Ave., Seattle, WA 206-624-6600 – to hear a dialogue on the role hope plays in the east vs. the west. Jayant Swamy, author of Colours in the Spectrum, a novel, will talk about hope in the east based on his childhood education in India. With my suburban western American upbringing, counterpointed by the lives of Czech family, I will represent the west. Short readings from my novel, Better You Go Home, and Swamy’s novel will be part of the adventure.

If you can’t make Tuesday evening, I will offer a workshop on Thursday, Mar 27thEagle Harbor Book Co. – 7:30 PM – 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island / 206-842-5332.


Vaclav Havel


Stories begin with a disturbance. The disturbance, be it large or small (Russia annexes Crimea; the same day, the phone reception begins to crackle), is only significant to me or you or a character in our story if it challenges a deeply held belief or core value.


Consider hope. I know I’ve mentioned Vaclav Havel’s quote in another blog, but I will repeat here what the former dissident, playwright, and Czech president had to say: “Hope is finding a way to believe that it makes sense to do what you’re doing, that it is the right thing to do, whether it turns out well or not.” After the Soviet crackdown of Prague Spring in August 1968 (Warsaw pact troops rolled into Prague with tanks), Havel and any intellectual who chose to stay rather than flee faced certain torture in prison, not to mention censorship of their writing or art, and constant surveillance and intimidation when not in prison. Under such hopeless seeming pressures, to “hope” was to express a value, or rather, to insist on safeguarding a value even when it made no rational sense.


Unlike Havel, according to Marci Shore in The Taste of Ashes, Adam Michnik, a Polish activist, “evoked the phenomenon ‘as if’ to describe the green grocer who lived a lie, pretending to admire the emperor’s new clothes.” According to Shore, the value Michnik held above all else was the imperative to live “’as if’ it were a free country, as if words mattered, as if civic education were possible, as if there were such a thing as moral responsibility – even under the Communist regime.


For Havel, hope meant living a moral life despite the enormous pressure to give it up. For Michnik, hope meant living as if we live in a morally responsible world. Havel was the realist who yet found a way to hold onto this value. Michnik was a fictionalist who found that creating a moral world where one did not exist was preferable to wallowing in misery.

For an American writer, such as myself, raised in the American suburban west, hope was not high on the list of values. “Hope” was a placebo for suckers. Why? We lived in a post-war growing economy in a world dominated by children in a democratic society governed by the rule of law. It’s not that cruelty or government malfeasance were unknown. The specter of the Vietnam draft loomed like a dark cloud, like a pending earthquake that might one day split the home ground of my world into an irreparable before and after. But we had what Havel and Michnik didn’t, a clear path to a future that seemed unbounded by the promise of anything but plenty.




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