The end of the lockdown may now be in sight, but there are still frustrating months ahead. Here's author Matt Haig on how to find hope in these difficult times...
"I always think it is interesting that arguably the most hopeful song of the 20th century - "Over the Rainbow" - arrived in arguably its darkest year. The Wizard of Oz, adapted from the L Frank Baum's novel, opened in cinemas on the 25th August 1939, the day Hitler sent a telegram to Mussolini to tell him he was about to invade Poland. Within a week, the second world war was under way in Europe.
"Over The Rainbow" was the most popular piece of music in 1939, and has become shorthand for that bittersweet sense of being in tough times and walking towards better ones. Yip Harburg’s heartfelt lyrics speak of hope, but so does Harold Arlen’s music – and when the tune jumps a whole octave within the elongated “some-where” it flies over a metaphorical rainbow of seven notes to land on the eighth. And it is that leap that really feels like the essence of hope: half rooted in reality, half up in the sky. Half present, half future. Part Kansas, part Oz.
Of course, 1939 and 2021 are very different years. And sure, the felt-tip rainbows children drew in support of the NHS had become faded and sun-bleached long before the second wave of the pandemic crashed to shore, but hope is still in demand. The trouble is, hope can be hard. For every buoyant thought about vaccines, it is easy to sink back into a black hole of news and ongoing catastrophe. And it seems impossible sometimes to resist the downward gravitational pull of new strains and scary statistics and the sheer social, economic and psychological magnitude of all this.
It is easy to feel, quite literally, hopeless. We might actively try to resist it and stay inside the low octave of pessimism. As gloomy old Nietzsche saw it, hope is the absolute “worst of all evils” because it prolongs our torments rather than relieves them. But that is defeatist, and this last year has shown us that, despite our collective flaws as a species, we don’t easily give up on a better future. I prefer Anne Lamott’s idea of how hope, “begins in the dark – the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come”. Because that's the thing about hope. Its stubbornness. It is Emily Dickinson’s singing bird perched in the soul that never stops at all.
This actually gives hope a very real and practical purpose. Far from it being a Nietzschean torment, something that dangles like a carrot eternally in front of a donkey’s nose, reasons for hope can be found not just after despair but inside it. In the face of this slow-moving tragedy we have been living through, we have seen so many acts of everyday goodness and courage, in hospitals and care homes and on our own streets.
Hope can be found in many forms - the recent account of Jake Haendal from Massachusetts is a case in point. Diagnosed with toxic progressive leukoencephalopathy, Jake eventually emerged from "locked-in syndrome" after many months of rehabilitation and now writes about his experience. A brilliant account of his recovery can be found here
Maybe, then, the hope we could work to cultivate is less the passive cross-fingers-and-wait variety, but more the look-for-the-rainbow kind, or the sleeves-rolled-up-and-make-it-happen kind. In desperate times, beauty shines brighter. I can remember reading about how Steven Callahan, a sailor who was adrift at sea for 76 days, noticed through pain and hunger the sudden majesty of the night sky. He wasn’t noticing this beauty despite his life being in peril but because of it.
In depression I used to cling to such moments, even as the weight of illness pressed into my mind. Beauty shone like a promise of another world within this one. Even amid the collective trauma of this year, it is also still possible to detect a collective hope. “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism,” observed the civil rights activist Angela Davis. So just as a virus highlights our interdependence on each other in an ominous way, hope shows how togetherness is as much solution as problem. Whether developing a vaccine or wearing a mask or shopping for a relative or contacting an elderly neighbour, there is always something we humans can do for each other.
Hope isn’t about waiting for a hypothetical future. Hope is finding the goodness in the dark and protecting it like a flame. Maybe – let’s hope big – we will emerge from this mass experience with a better idea of how we should live, just as we did after the second world war. And, in the end, we might not need ruby slippers because we have each other to lead us home".
The Midnight Library is Matt Haig's new book and is highly recommended.
This excerpt was first published in The Guardian on the 27th February 2021.