Can hope persevere despite the grimmest of circumstances?
As a Christian I try to answer this question affirmatively—though my “yes” often trembles with doubt. Yes, I believe in God. Yes, I believe in the Holy Spirit. Yes, I believe in Jesus, who teaches us how to act in communion with God through the Holy Spirit.
But at the close of 2016, a year of war, destruction, racism, sexism, classism, and the normalization of political extremism, it’s not so easy to see the outward and visible markers of the spiritual grace of hope. Persisting in my faith (and all the hard work that entails) can feel a little inconvenient, a little anachronistic, a little out of touch—a little like the brazen songbird in Thomas Hardy’s poem.
Hardy composed “The Darkling Thrush” on the eve of the turn of the nineteenth century—December 31, 1899. The night the poem describes is cold, ugly, foreboding; hope seems a baffling concept. Hardy himself was a seasoned pessimist, and many of his other works (prose and verse) depict his despair about the encroachment of modernity. 2017 finds many of us feeling similarly despondent, and I wonder whether Hardy’s poem might offer a flicker of consolation—or at least perspective.
The entire landscape seems to embody the century’s death throes, and we can almost feel the bitter slap of cold in the repeated “s” and “c” sounds: “The land’s sharp features seemed to be / The Century’s corpse outleant, / His crypt the cloudy canopy, / The wind his death lament.” Whatever hope the new century might hold is incomprehensible to the speaker.
Then, a little bird begins to sing—“An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume” “caroling” his little heart out, and thoroughly confusing the poem’s speaker. And though the thrush’s song doesn’t change the speaker’s perception of “terrestrial things”—the unpromising signs he sees written on the world around him—it it does persuade him that there may be wellsprings of hope that he cannot see. The poem’s final line, “And I was unaware” feels a little like his confession that, in his despair, he has not been seeing the whole picture.
And maybe the same goes for us as we enter 2017. The notion that we could or should simply change our perspective and become optimistic about the Trump presidency, our economy, Syria, would be ridiculous. There are too many logical reasons to be afraid for such simple consolation. And yet, Hardy’s poem reminds me that the deeper I sink into my own pessimistic worldview, the less available I am to be moved by grace—the “full hearted evensong” of an unexpected singer—and the less able I am to stand up for my beliefs.
Perhaps we can read the songbird as a metaphor for whatever people, rituals, accidental encounters, move us (or even confuse us) enough to reveal the barriers we hold between ourselves and God. The world may not seem suddenly rosy and cheerful—but we will feel less alone. Whenever I feel I’ve gained even the littlest bit of clarity about my place in the world, I believe I am closer to God. That kind of shifted awareness is hopeful, creative—a sign of grace.