Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hope



For many—maybe most of its human inhabitants, the world is and always has been a hard place. For most, hope is the fuel that helps life go on. Hope for some kind of change that things will get better for us—or at least for our children, hope that tomorrow the sun will shine and the rain-earthquake-tsunami-drought-war will stop. And, especially at this time of year, hope that there will be “peace on earth”—and for many, hope in another life that transcends this hard one.

I have been reminded of the importance of hope while watching Kennedy footage on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination, and reminded again with the passing of Nelson Mandela and its attendant ceremony.

As Kennedy came to office the Cold War kept families in Europe separated and American children diving under desks with the fear of a nuclear attack, new African nations struggled, poverty was wide-spread in South America, the Southern states in our own country were deeply segregated, and black Americans throughout were economically and educationally poorer than their white neighbors.

Kennedy said that working together we could heal divisions, provide education and justice to more, and smooth the hard edges of life for many. A son of privilege, he said that privilege provided the opportunity for service. In 1965, two years after his death, I went to Turkey as a peach-fuzzed Peace Corps Volunteer with a pocketful of Kennedy half dollars. Village Turks and government officials accepted them with tears in their eyes and Kennedy stories, Kennedy hopes they remembered. (Maybe we could still do something with the hopes, I said.)

In South Africa, the Apartheid regime headed a white-dominated society where the large black and “colored” populations were at the back of every white-headed line. Nelson Mandela, who came of age as apartheid hardened (it was only legislatively institutionalized in 1948), went from pastoral childhood to peaceful and then military protester. He was imprisoned in 1962 and released in 1990 to a world that had waited and hoped with him for over 27 years.

The time of Mandela’s imprisonment saw brutal dictatorships in many African nations, a long and dreadful war in Vietnam, genocide in Cambodia, and the rise of oligarchies and plutocracies across the world. But Mandela waited as American students shamed their universities into disinvesting in South Africa and a world movement rose against apartheid. The regime was forced into negotiations with Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, and with Mandela himself, who would accept release only without conditions in hopes of freedom for his black and white countrymen.

And then, as many predicted and feared a bloodbath, Mandela presided over reconciliation. And as African dictators shuffled and jockeyed to remain in power, he stepped down after one term, sending his country a step further on the road to a fair functioning democracy.

Today they struggle, but struggle on that road, and the world celebrates their George Washington.
Today, a new Pope denounces extremes of wealth and privilege and announces his affiliation with the world-wide poor. Hope springs in millions, maybe billions.

Today, women build on the legacy of the ‘70s and the passing of Title IX, the landmark legislation that says that when federal dollars are involved, men and women must have equal access. We think of sports, but I think of the new head of General Motors, the number of women doctors we have in Wallowa County, and the local ranchers and hands wearing cowgirl boots. Girls’ basketball too!

Last week, a new young male nurse at our hospital who has traveled the world tells me he thinks that we need some kind of universal conscription, that everyone should do something for their country. For many in our fine new hospital, the work is an opportunity to live in this place and to serve—choices they have made over manna.

Yes, the minimum wage alarmists are at it again—raises will cripple the economy—but they are countered by millions who say that $15 dollars per hour is the cusp of a real living wage. Even as the number of billionaires has jumped dramatically in the last decades, this new message gains momentum. Free marketers can’t answer the sweat shops and the excesses of wealth.

Today, Nez Perce Fisheries has salmon running again in the Lostine River, and Wallowa Resources and a group of agency partners is reaching back to Nez Perce practices in rebuilding healthy forests. The conversations among disciplines and cultures and the listening are probably more important than the specific resource.

The world is still a hard place for many—maybe most, but hope lives on and invites us to celebrate its heroes—the Kennedys and Mandelas, notice its presence, and practice it ourselves.

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