If following the headlines leaves you feeling like you’ve got a tiger by tail, you’re not alone. Nor are you making it up. At least one recent study claims to show that Americans are more stressed out about politics than they’ve been in the past ten years.
It’s not just the bad news, either. I haven’t slept well this week in part because late on successive nights, news broke about Michael Flynn’s conversations with a Russian counterpart and then his subsequent dismissal. It took an hour to figure out what was going on, and then another hour just to work through all the jokes on Twitter. I need the president to make less history so I can catch up on sleep.
You could break your neck trying to keep pace. The new administration has been horrifying, hateful, insane, racist, ill-informed, chaotic, depressing, and on the verge of utter collapse, sometimes all in the same press conference. It’s distressing to see the pain this trainwreck is already causing, yet somehow fascinating to watch the wheels fall off in real time. It is not at all clear who—if anyone—is running the nation sometimes. Even when it is, one gets the sense that the malevolence is limited only by the incompetence. The Executive Branch of the United States Government has turned into a bunch of knife-wielding clowns who can’t manage to get themselves out of the car. It would be terrifying if it weren’t so damn funny and also because we’re strapped into our seats and the circusmaster just opened the door to the lion cage.
All of this makes it difficult to give advice on hopefulness these days. By the time I get done processing the latest existential threat, there’s a new soaring inspiration to talk about, followed by three more depressing things and three rays of sunshine. It’s like Joseph’s dreams of fat and slender calves, only more sinister and drug-addled.
So how do you keep hope alive in dizzying times like these?
The short answer: you keep a practice. As we’ve said before, doing something—anything—helps to reduce anxiety and increase a sense of control.
Given the president’s decided xenophobia, one practice in particular stands out:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
That’s from the Epistle to the Hebrews, of course, which I wrote about last week. It’s not accidental that this great sustained meditation on hope and faith would close with a focus on practice. It was traditional to conclude with practical moral guidance, for one thing.
It’s also true, as someone said, that we often talk about needing hope to take action, but the reverse is just as important: we need to take action in order to feel hope. “Let mutual love continue,” says the author of Hebrews. Love, given and received, is the basis of both Christian morality and Christian hope.
Hospitality was an esteemed value in the day when traveling any significant distance exposed people to real danger. For Jews, it was a kindness done remembering that “you were once strangers in Egypt.” As they once received hospitality, so they should give. It was both a practical reciprocity and a political statement about the God who liberated them from slavery and constituted their nation. Likewise, when Jesus welcomed to the table tax collectors and other notorious sinners, it was at once a reflection of his understanding of God’s radical grace and a protest against the religious establishment’s exclusive policies.
Today, even simple generosity is counter-cultural, a work of justice. A couple of weeks ago, average people flooded airports to protest for and cheer on immigrants clearing the CBP gauntlet to show their sense of right and wrong. Demonstrations continue to pop up to show love and acceptance of Muslims and Hispanic immigrants. These things make me proud to be an American still.
Any practice helps to keep the fires burning in a demoralizing time. Whether organizing protests or writing poetry, taking action helps to set priorities and maintain balance. It’s simple enough to turn out for pro-immigrant rallies or support groups like the New Sanctuary Movement or Voces de la Frontera.
But although practices by themselves sustain hope, they don’t actually produce it, and hope is what we are after. In that regard, there is no substitute for caring for specific individuals. Christine Pohl says:
Strangers are “people without a place.” To be without a place is to be disconnected from basic, life-supporting institutions—family, work, civil society, and religious community—and to be without the networks of relations that sustain and support human beings. People without a place who also lack financial resources are the most vulnerable people. This is the condition in which homeless people, displaced poor people, refugees, and undocumented persons find themselves.
Working with individuals like this to restore broken connections and find a new place in the world is hope-giving. Watching someone heal and come alive again only increases confidence in the belief that healing is in fact possible. Working against the agenda of fear, hate and division strengthens the faith that in the end, that agenda does not control us or our world. Every act of bringing together is an act of disobedience to the command to separate ourselves from those who fall under suspicion. And nurturing simple human relationship buffers us from the ups and downs of the political world.
Healing, reconciliation, and love are the great sources of hope, because they point to new possibilities to escape the seemingly inescapable logic of hostility and death. They direct us to a better destination for the world. If you feel like your neck’s going to break with every breaking news story, take a breather and go help at the local food pantry or homeless shelter. Sign up to help resettle a refugee family, if you can, or to work with migrants. They’ll appreciate it and they’ll feel good about it.+ + +