“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
– Emily Dickinson, 314
From the untimely deaths of David Bowie, Prince and Carrie Fisher to Brexit, there has been little time to take a breather from all the disappointments of 2016. In Vancouver, the headline that called out from the newspaper the other day read “Worst Year Ever?” while the television host Jon Oliver took much the same approach on his final show of the year, blowing up a ‘2016’ sign in an empty stadium. For many people, or at least many people who have voiced their opinion, 2016 has been a lot of let down.
While every year is rife with upsets and disappointments, and hopefully the equivalent joys and triumphs, the most stomach-churning event of 2016 for me was Donald Trump’s election win. In one fell swoop, it seemed like a Western democracy had crumbled, like the advent of terrible behaviour – misogyny and hatred – had been upheld in the worst way. On November 9th, reading the election headlines, the words of far right groups around the world bled out. The most chilling to me were those of Florian Philippot, a Vice President of the Front National political party in France. “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.”
For me, it was a cold shock to wake up that day. It felt like I was living through the worst of a Huxley novel, a well-marketed half-utopia that had swung into the eerie beginnings of dystopia, and not because the Democratic Party had lost, but because it was a win for values that seem out of sync with democracy – its preservation and its continued resistance. But, outside of the election, the fear for the future of working people, the environment, there was also the appearance of something else.
In the poem Grief, Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of the nature of grief, of its constitution when we are truly broken and are unable to ‘arise and go’. To Browning, when we have the ability to scream and to rage and to act, we are still alive.
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare…
The post-election days may have been hard to deal with, but there was one thing I found a welcome relief in that I did not expect: the persistence of hope. While there were many articles about Hillary’s Clinton’s downfall and Donald Trump’s win and the death of neo-liberalism, there was also vigilance, in a spirit I haven’t quite seen it before. From the faith in standing up expressed by Barbara Kingsolver to the words of Rebecca Solnit, this spirit has glimmered across the surface of things.
It’s quite human to feel like hope is lost. We have moments that buoy us and then ones following those that push us to the ground, but if hopeless grief is passionless, at least in our passion there is a hope that remains. In fact, perhaps it is in the hope and the fight towards it that we find the best parts of ourselves. As the writer Naomi Wolf said, ”The price of liberty, the generation that debated and created the Constitution understood, is eternal vigilance.”
As long as we have the ability to scream and rage and act, there will be hope. It is not anger and activism we have to be afraid of, but silence, the numbness and apathy that can displace meaningful action. So cheers, to hope and ideas and the words from which they spring, just don’t forget how they’re spelled. ‘Nope’ is the thing with feathers doesn’t have quite the same ring, after all.