The Heroines Who Inspire Me to Keep the Faith
January 21, 2021
When I was young, I was enamored of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The title character—a spirited, resilient orphan with a penchant for melodrama—saw the world through a lens of youthful optimism. For her, the world was rife with possibilities, and adventure awaited at every turn. Occasionally, some harsh reality in Anne’s life—or a thorny predicament of her own making—sent her crashing into what she (somewhat impertinently) deemed “the depths of despair.” But these moments of despondency were always short-lived; before long, Anne was resolving to make the best of a bad situation.
If I’m honest, adopting a “glass-half-full” outlook isn’t always my strong suit. I am quick to be consumed by a problem’s complexities and overwhelmed—in mind and spirit—by its magnitude. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the state of our nation in 2020—from the pandemic to bigotry laid bare in the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others—left me regularly in the depths of despair. But here’s something else you should know about me. I want to be an optimist. I envy Anne’s idealism. And so, I make concerted efforts to feed the flame of hope in me whenever possible.
That’s what I was doing last fall on November 3rd as the election got underway. I sat at my kitchen table writing about the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) and how findings from IDEALS were giving me hope in these divisive times. I wrote in earnest about the ways college students and recent graduates are well primed to lead bridge-building efforts in our country. On a more personal level, I recalled the incredible young adults I’ve had the privilege of meeting, advising, and mentoring throughout my career in higher education. Each of them, in their own way, has inspired me by forging relationships, birthing big ideas, and setting out to make a change with enthusiasm and stick-to-it-iveness. As I recalled these individuals, that flame of hope got a little brighter.
This week, at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the world watched as an inspiring young woman expressed her determination to realize change. In her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman boldly declared:
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
Amanda and her contemporaries aren’t exempt from despair, yet they largely choose to see the world as it could be. Large majorities of today’s young adults understandably lack confidence in institutions and are inclined toward distrust of others. Yet they exhibit a knack for recasting challenges as adventures and they set out to conquer them.
In the months between Election Day and Inauguration Day, despair overtook my hopefulness more than a few times. On November 7th, I was intently listening to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory speech. He spoke of healing and unity and appealed to those who did not vote for him. “I understand the disappointment tonight,” he said, “but now, let’s give each other a chance.” Suddenly, it dawned on me that many of the people to whom Biden was directly speaking were likely not even tuning in to hear this speech. I was utterly disheartened. How can we begin the work of building bridges when the invitation to do so hangs in the air, unreceived?
After months of false claims about a fraudulent election and growing unrest across the nation, I found myself once again—along with so many of my fellow Americans—racked with despair. On January 6th, when violent rioters defiled our U.S. Capitol, another line from Biden’s victory speech rang in my ears: “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now.” I couldn’t imagine anything grimmer than what I was witnessing, acts of violence born of relentless demonization. An end to this era was difficult to imagine.
In a recent exchange between OnBeing’s Krista Tippett and Whitney Kimball Coe from the Center for Rural Strategies, Kimball Coe queried, “Why is our righteous indignation and disgust so much easier to flame than our compassion?” In hearing this question, I was reminded that my struggle to see the glass as half full is hardly unique; many of us fight every day to keep cynicism and desolation at bay. That fight was a bit easier on January 20th as we witnessed something Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri aptly named as both commonplace and miraculous: the peaceful transfer of presidential power. But our country must also brace for myriad challenges as we continue to lose loved ones to Covid-19, struggle against 400 years of systemic racism, and grapple with complex problems while navigating deep ideological differences.
When we encounter times of trial in the months and years ahead, it’s incumbent upon each of us to look within and determine what oxygen will feed our flame of hope. We must take Kimball Coe’s question a step further and ask, How do we supplant our indignation with resolve? How do we ensure disgust doesn’t usurp our vision of a better future? Your answers are likely different than mine. Whatever they might be, I implore you to discover them.
As for me, I will turn to Amanda Gorman and others like her to inspire my resolve and inform my vision of a better future in America. I will remind myself of the young adults across the U.S. who are resolutely pursuing their own vision of a more perfect union, and I’ll do what I can to support them. And yes, I will continue to be uplifted by that plucky orphan, Anne, and her earnest belief that every “tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet.”
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
American Civic Life