The false hope of writing our own history
History resists a narrative while it's happening. It may rhyme, as they say, but the rhyme is often slant and anticipating it frequently proves a fool's errand.
Yet the habit of playing historian of our own moment can feel like an exercise in hope. I, for one, tend to mentally map out the coming weeks and months, to piece together a timeline of what could happen next — when the pandemic will peak, when we can stop social distancing, when we can rightly celebrate the family wedding we're now obliged to skip — and to interpret it, too, as all historians do. Just yesterday I read and wrote of how the novel coronavirus seems to have launched us into a new era, just as the 9/11 attacks did two decades ago. The impulse is strong to say, "This is how our lives will change," "This will reframe X," "This will shift politics and culture toward Y and Z."
Our minds are naturally given to story- and meaning-making, and I suspect I am far from alone in finding myself recurrently imagining a narrative of this time in history before the time is complete. But I also suspect this practice isn't as hopeful as it seems — that perhaps we should be wary of it, for true hope is something we fiercely need.
President Trump provided a scarecrow here, as he is often wont to do. "I'd love to have it open by Easter, okay?" he said at a Rose Garden press event in late March. "I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter." The president was widely criticized for this proposal, divorced as it was from the reality of the pandemic's path, and indeed here we are halfway through Holy Week with no anticipation of the packed churches Trump envisioned. The narrative he proffered could not come true, and because we are so habituated to skeptically scrutinizing Trump's words, we could see the falseness of his hope.
Scrutinizing our own most eager thoughts is a more difficult task. They resist interrogation, throwing up screens of attractive story, tidy narratives of the present in imagined retrospect. Entertaining those narratives seems an act of hope, but it sets us up with expectations to be dashed, adding loss to loss, dejection to despair.
Easter itself is a reminder of how far events may stray from the story we want to believe we're living. This past weekend, Christians celebrated Palm Sunday, which is the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem. He was received by an adoring crowd hailing him as their new king, a divinely appointed national-military leader who would save them from the oppression of Rome. Five days later, on Good Friday, he was dead, executed at the request of that same crowd and by the very empire they'd expected him to overthrow.
Christ's resurrection was more unlooked-for still; his own followers did not expect it despite his promise. They hid in their homes and scattered out of the city, isolated and afraid and certain the story they'd been living had just come unraveled.
The question of "which story we are living in" is just as pressing now as then, wrote the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright in a Palm Sunday sermon which, though given in 2014, seems apt for 2020. "As our public institutions are less trusted than ever, and our [nation's] behavior at home and abroad is more confused than ever, the stories which used to make sense of our lives have let us down," Wright continues. "We have run out of stories, [and] we have run out of kings of whatever kind; and all we think we can do is trust the great god Mammon, as though our fragile economic half-recoveries would trickle out" and solve all the problems of the world that money can't fix.
We are in the midst of Holy Week, frantically trying to drag events back to what we feel they ought to be and instead being ourselves dragged inexorably toward Good Friday. All the narrative we can muster doesn't change that a bit, and playing preemptive historian is more likely to land us in the gloom of repeated disappointment than the light of hope.
Still, Easter is coming, and hope must and can be had. Real hope "does not disappoint us," as one rendering of the Apostle Paul's words puts it, and "does not put us to shame," as says another. That's because it isn't grounded in our own narrative of the history happening to us, in our anticipation of events that may not come when and how we want them, if they come at all. It is grounded, for Christians, in the love, peace, and justice of God. And it is grounded in each other, too, in people, not events — in relationships, in our love for one another, not the vicissitudes of this era or that one.
In this crisis, hoping in a specific timeline for reuniting with our loved ones will probably disappoint us. Hoping in the joy of that reunion will not.
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," wrote Alexander Pope in the most quoted part of his "Essay on Man," but I think the line's preceding context has the greater wisdom for us now. "Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of Fate/All but the page prescribed, their present state," Pope muses. Deeming this "blindness to the future" a gift "kindly giv'n," he advises hoping "humbly" within our lack of rightful expectation. And hold onto that good hope, he says, even as "Atoms or systems [are] into ruin hurl'd/And now a bubble burst, and now a world."