Hoping against Hope in the Face of Death

Ruth Robbins, Ged and his otak

Illus by Robbins, “Wizard of Earthsea,” Ged and his otak

My faculty reading group grappled with the issue of hope last week. Specifically, we discussed philosopher Adrienne Martin’s book How We Hope: A Moral Psychology. My philosophy colleagues explained to me that Martin is a Kantian, which helps explain why I found the book so difficult. (I still feel the bruises from my college encounters with Kant.) Nevertheless, I emerged with some powerful perspectives on hope in the face of death, including how it played a role when my oldest son died 15 years ago.

Martin asks how it is possible to hope when there seem no rational grounds for hoping, what she calls “hope against hope.” Must one have religious faith to have such hope, she wonders, or can one ground one’s hope in something more secular as well? To answer the question, Martin draws on Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which I’ve written about  here and here. Martin argues that Chief Plenty Coups’ “unimaginable hope” that the Crow people would survive, even though he had no rational basis for such a hope, can have a non-religious as well as a religious dimension:

I aim to show that the hope Lear identifies has a kind of essential sustaining power lacked by hope in general, and that it has this power because it targets an outcome that is, for the hopeful person, unimaginable. I then draw from Immanuel Kant’s and Gabriel Marcel’s discussions of religious hope, in order to develop a detailed account of unimaginable hope, and to argue that it is best conceived as a kind of faith. Of course, both Kant and Marcel have in mind a specifically religious form of hope, and, in fact, Plenty Coups’ hope was also religious—it was grounded in a spiritual vision he had as a young man, and it relied on the Crow people’s shared belief that they were the favored people of the god Ah-badt-dadt-deah. However, Lear also suggests such a hope could be secularized—i.e., there is a form of faith available to atheists as well, and it is one that constitutes a virtuous and sustaining response to cultural collapse.

To make sense of this, I turn first to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then to Justin’s death, then to Beowulf, and finally to Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea.

I’ve posted in the past how I came to see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differently after watching a former Marine respond to it. Matt Alexander, who served two tours in Afghanistan disassembling IEDs, used the poem to get back in touch with certain feelings he had pushed under. Thinking about his experience in terms of Martin’s book as well as the poem, I now see how deep a role hope played in helping Matt hold on to his humanity.

You can read the previous post for more details. I’ll just mention here that Matt thought, when he was in Afghanistan, that he had learned how to shrug off his fear of death. When he saw Gawain taking the green girdle from Lady Bertilak, however, he suddenly realized that he hadn’t accepted death as much as he thought. Rather, he had simply numbed himself to his fears. Matt realized that the care he took in donning his body armor, even though it wouldn’t protect him from an exploding IED, meant that he cared more about his life than he was admitting. The discovery hit him with seismic force, and he stayed up all night reading the poem.

Martin would say that, by putting on the armor, Matt was expressing hope. This hope is so fundamental a part of what it means to be human that, when we abandon hope (as Dante understood), we become inhuman. That’s what Nature, in the form of the Green Knight, is telling the knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight warns us that we can’t let our heads become separated from our bodies, and he himself offers us an example of one who is so in touch with nature that he can’t be beheaded. The fact that Gawain takes the girdle and that he flinches when the axe descends means that he is still human. His challenge is to love the human side that makes him vulnerable, not be ashamed of it.

Matt’s acknowledgement of his humanity has helped in his reintegration into civilian society.

After telling Matt’s story to my  faculty book group, I then shared my experience following Justin’s death. Right after Justin drowned, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever be happy again. And yet I remember making certain decisions that very night that Martin would call expressions of unimaginable hope. I determined that I would not let death Justin’s death blight my family’s life, that I would do whatever it took to find what was life-sustaining about what had happened. To do so, I declared that I would follow grief, unresisting, through whatever paths she led me.

The hope was unimaginable because I couldn’t imagine what my grief would look like or how I would emerge from the ordeal. It was hopeful because I felt sure that the mind has healing properties and knows what is best for us. My job, as I saw it, was to follow grief’s dictates. In other words, I got out of my head and into my body.

What did this look like? Each day I accepted whatever grief had in store for me. Some days I was raging, some days deeply sorrowful, some days more exhausted than I thought it was possible to be. There were also days when I felt fairly calm. In each case, I would see the mood as my agenda for the day—as in, “Okay, today I’ll be really, really tired. I feel this way because of how much I loved Justin. I don’t wish for anything else.”

Lest it sound that I was only caught up in my own emotions, I should mention that I was also looking out for those I loved. In a previous post I’ve written about how one can interpret Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s Mother as a struggle with grief and take inspiration from his wielding the giant sword, which in my case was my commitment to those I loved. It sounds like a contradiction but I both stood up to Grendel’s Mother and let her drag me through her dark waters.

In neither case did I try to dictate what the future would look like. I didn’t demand a certain happy outcome. Nevertheless, I somehow knew, in a deep way, that healing would occur. I never lost that hope, which felt like a certainty. Or as Kant, Marcel, and Martin would say, a faith.

Although I’m Christian, it didn’t seem like a particularly Christian faith in that it didn’t involve images of Jesus. But it seemed to go deeper than psychology. Thinking about Matt, perhaps it involved getting in touch with some deep life force that that wouldn’t allow me to retreat into my head.

I have one more literary image, this one taken from Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, which I taught last week. Ged carries a weasel-like creature called an otak on his shoulder and, at a crisis point when a deep spiritual malaise grips Ged and threatens to bury him, the otak reconnects him with life:

Later, when Geld thought back upon that night, he knew that had none touched him when he lay there spirit-lost, had none called him back in some way, he might have been lost for good. It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

I’ll let you decide whether this deep power, this hope, is religious or secular. Whatever it is, it guides us through the valley of the shadow of death.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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