It’s amazing how these minds of ours work (when they do work). The past never totally desserts us. The ties that bind us to the past are always there within us. We carry them around every single day of our lives. We might neglect them, or move beyond them, or even forget about them for a while; we might cover them up; deny them; lose track of them. But then, sometimes, the least little spark can reenergize them. And then, for good or for ill, there we are—right back where we never thought we’d be again.
The past is not all sweetness and light, of course. Sometimes, we greet it again with sadness, pain, or bitterness. But even then, it’s part of who we are; we neglect its lessons only at our own peril.
As for those blessed memories of the past—the happy memories, which gladden our hearts and inspire and strengthen us—what a great gift of grace it is to be able to summon them up from time to time, to allow them to touch our lives so gently with their smile—as though to remind us of what a precious gift of God this life is, and that, as living memories we possess the greatest gift that one person can give to another.
Of course, we can’t live in the past. But we can live with the past. Or rather, the past can live within us still: which can be both a real blessing and a real challenge.
But life doesn’t go backwards. “Life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday,” is how Gibran put it. The great lesson of the fall (this season of fall, which seems to be taking forever to get here this year)—this fall season of our lives that some of us are in, that the rest of us will be in before we know it—is that we have to learn to let go, to let go of so many things, so many dear ones, as our lives unfold—like the passing year.
But our lives don’t always seem to pass as gradually and gracefully as the passing year. Sometimes, these lives of ours hurtle forward like a madcap roller coaster ride at Six Flags or some such place. Exciting, and scary, and energizing while we’re on it; but the end always comes much too quickly, however long we’ve been there. (But maybe we get to ride it again at some great Amusement Park beyond our knowledge? Who knows?)
So often, it seems as though we view the days of our lives through a rear-view mirror, as we rush forward to our next goal, our next achievement, the next milestone of our lives. So often what we need to do, then—however old or however young we may be—is slow down in all of our busyness and haste to get things done and to arrive at our next destination; slow down and experience this day—this hour—this moment we have before us right now—because, you know what? It is never going to come back again, and if we ride roughshod over it, and ignore it, and refuse to live it fully, we’ll never be able to add its precious value to our great treasure chest of memory.
This precious moment—right now—is the great point at which both living memories and living hopes meet and greet and dance with one another. The living moment—right now—holds within it the sum total of all that has been; it points forward toward all that will ever be. And it needs to do it gracefully, like a dance, stepping neither too much one way, nor too much the other; neither locked in the ways of the past; nor ignoring the past in a mad dash to the future. But feigning first one way, then the other; looking backward one moment, then forward the next; remembering the past, caring for the future, but all the while savoring and enjoying the music and movement and flow of where we are and what we’re doing right now.
That is how hope is born in the womb of history. By living our lives fully right now, and at the same time forging those ties—strong and true—that connect us to the future. How we care for our children. How we care for one another. How we care for the Earth. The decisions we make today determine what kind of place this world will be.
That is what hope is all about. Hope is our willingness to do our work well today, so that tomorrow will be good for those who come after us. It doesn’t really matter whether we live to see the end results of what we’re building or not. Of course, we want to see it; but that’s not really what matters. Hope is about doing our work well so that the ties that bind us to those who come after us will be firm and secure and life-supporting; so that the memories we leave will be sweet dreams of the past and not nightmares that continue to haunt the future.
Victor Frankl ranks as one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century. He was one of the leading intellectuals of his day, an esteemed scholar, and a best-selling author. But his most important credential, perhaps, was that he was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. Certainly, the heart and soul of his work, especially his masterwork, Man’s Search for Meaning, emerged out of what he observed and experienced in the camps. During this most horrible period in his life, Frankl, like so many others, lost all of his family—his wife, his parents and siblings. He lost almost everything he owned. Yet, like numerous others, he survived the horror.
Frankl tells us, who merely languished, faded away, and then, finally died. There came a moment, Frankl wrote, when the people around just knew that a fellow prisoner had given up hope, and was preparing to expire. “He would go quiet, smoke a last cigarette he had been hoarding, refuse to get out of bed, ignore threats or blows, and soon, usually within a day, the prisoner would die.”
Frankl once among the first to discern the connection between mind and body, the relationship between attitude and health-- between finding meaning in life and survival itself. He and those like him had survived the camps, Viktor Frankl maintained, because they had never given up hope. What Frankl observed was the value of hope, even in the most hopeless-- the most deplorable and ghastly-- conditions. “Whoever is joined with all the living has hope,” the book of Ecclesiastes tells us. And, Viktor Frankl discovered that it is the one who has hope who stays connected with life-- indeed, who stays alive. Daring to hope can make all the difference between life and death. Hope makes all the difference in determining whether our lives will be rich in meaning or devoid of it.
It is also interesting, I think, that in Spanish the word for to hope “esperar” is the same as the word for “to wait”. Espero means “I hope”; it also means “I wait”. There is pregnant in each moment of our living upon this earth an anticipation of what is to come next-- a sense of not knowing what awaits us-- coupled with a sense not of dread, but of hope.
One more etymological nugget I came across recently is that the English word “hope” is also related to the English word “hop”. When we hope, we hop to life. We spring into life. We jump at the possibilities. We leap at the prospect of what might be awaiting us. While we wait, we hope. And while we hope-- why not hop?
People who find meaning in their lives not only have lives that are rich in hopefulness. They also go through life, I think, as sort of spiritual Energizer Bunnies, hopping from adventure to adventure, possibility to possibility, hope to hope.
This doesn’t mean that they pretend that life is a bed of roses. No one who has spent more than a few years in this world can pretend that any of our lives can ever be free of their share of pain and sadness, despair and even times of hopelessness. People will let us down; we will be disappointed sometimes. Some of our goals won’t be achieved, however hard we try. Those we love will get sick and pass away.
There is a good deal of life that we have to accept for what it is, and that often isn’t very pleasant.
But hope knows how to accept. It knows how to wait. And on the next blank page of life, it delicately writes its dream of what can be next.
Hope reminds us to look back at the best memories we have, and to build on them. It reminds us to look back at the best examples from our human story—to those who were most true to their calling to full humanity—and to learn from them.
Hope reminds us that we can live in relationships where we love one another. We can hope for a community-- and even a world-- where all children are cared for, and educated, and given something to hope for. We can live in a world where all sons and daughters of God are guaranteed basic human freedoms; where their needs are met; where their sacred diversity is appreciated and celebrated. We can hope to do our part to make this world better for our having been here.
There is a story about a young British couple in their 20s who were on holiday in Indonesia. They had been talking about their future, especially whether or not they should get married. She wanted to; he didn’t. Suddenly, the ferryboat they were on ran aground during a storm, started taking on water, and began to sink. They clambered for a lifeboat, but so did too many others, and soon, the lifeboat, too, foundered. So, the young couple set off swimming, calling out for each other in the storm. Finally, they came to a spar, and clung to it for dear life, waiting to be rescued. Eventually, five other passengers joined them, but one by one, the others ran out of strength, let go of the spar, and dropped off into the water to drown. Finally, after thirteen hours, help managed to arrive through the storm, and the couple was rescued.
Asked later how they had managed to hold on for so long, the couple really didn’t know what to say. Finally, the young woman responded: “Well, we remembered all the things we had done together. We told jokes. We sang to each other.” “We promised that if we made it, we’d get married straight away,” the man added. “It was almost like a test,” the young woman went on. “As though some great power had asked us a question. How could we let go then?”
The book of memory reminds us how much we have invested in this life. How can we let go then?
But hope also reminds us that it is not enough to cling to the past. It is not enough to drift passively through life. Hope means active engagement in life. There is a responsibility of hope. Commitment and service and responsibility are the price we pay for the gift of life we have been given.
May memory continue to warm our hearts. May hope continue to keep us afloat. There is so much to hope for. There is so much to believe in. There is so much work for us to do together, hand in hand, memory by memory, hope by blessed hope.