Tears, then action, lead to hope

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EACH year, The Economist produces a special edition that looks over the coming 12 months. The investment banker John Studzinski recently read the current version, The World in 2018, and noticed a glaring omission. There were predictable pieces on Donald Trump, Brexit, the Rohingya, North Korea, Yemen, Iran v. Saudi Arabia, and Russia’s interference in Western elections.

But where, asked the banker — who is a Roman Catholic and a prominent philanthropist — was the article on the devastating decline in morality in the industrialised world?

He made this observation at a book launch he hosted recently for a slim volume by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Hope In Action. The book struck a chord with me, as I had observed in my last two columns that, in our bleak and beleaguered times, we had a particular duty to maintain a narrative of optimism. The book insists on a distinction between optimism and hope.

St Thomas Aquinas saw two distinct elements in hope, Cardinal Nichols writes. Hope, the great scholastic philosopher says, is a movement of the will to desire something good. It is not the product of opinion or argument, but is a partnership between our understanding and our will. And hope is always directed towards God, the source and summit of all good: Goodness itself.

There is more here than a distinction between hope and optimism, which Cardinal Nichols dismisses as a mere disposition to look on the bright side, however irrationally. But hope can take on a negative manifestation as well as a positive one, as was demonstrated by two vivid images in the Cardinal’s speech in reply to Mr Studzinski. Both had been prominent when he was writing the book.

The first was of the terrorist executioner Jihadi John, dressed in black, pointing upward with the blade of his knife, his other hand holding his victim in a position of total subservience, defeated, and about to die. The brutal murderer spoke of his hope of a ruthless domination in the name of God.

The second image came from a mosaic that Cardinal Nichols had seen on a visit to the Church of the Annunciation, in Nazareth. It, too, showed an upright figure, but in white, powerful and yet welcoming; one hand high above his head points to heaven, while the other stretches down to a young woman whose neck is bared not in subservience but in a loving readiness to submit to the will of God.

One image is charged with triumphalist terror, the other suffused with innate dignity.

How do we nurture that positive hope in the face of such bleak negativity? The key to what it means to be human, the book concludes, is that we weep. They can be tears of pain, of separation, of frustration, of rage, or of regret. But it is through them that we set out on the road of hope.

Perhaps, then, the duty we have to maintain a narrative of optimism in our troubled times requires us to weep when we see how the human heart can be hardened so that it will violate that innate dignity. But out of those tears must come the determination to act which is implicit in Aquinas’s definition of what it means to hope.

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