Hope Out of Muck

April 16, 2009 3 Comments

Former (and first) President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel tells a little story that may provide a little guidance in these times. In 1989, only a few months before he completed an incredible journey from prisoner to president of his country, Havel found himself in a dire situation. The dissident poet and playwright turned politician, who had risked his life numerous times in the fight against communism, was walking with a friend in the countryside outside of Prague. In the near total darkness, he suddenly fell into a hole, a deep pit surrounded by cement walls – a sewer. Disoriented and covered in muck, Havel tried to move but this only made him sink more deeply. His friend above was joined by a number of people who gathered around the rim of the hole and tried frantically to rescue Havel. It was only after someone managed to find and lower a long ladder, nearly thirty minutes later, that Havel was saved from an untimely and messy ending.

From this freak accident, Havel climbed not just to dry land, but to the presidency, a truly amazing turn of events. Having lived through a number of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Havel continues to be a profoundly hopeful man. He sees hope as a state of mind that most often does not reflect the state of the world. Hope for him emerges out of the muck of absurdity, cruelty, and suffering, and reaches not for the solid ground of what is certain, but for what is meaningful, for what fundamentally makes sense. Hope, in his view, is not the same as optimism. It’s not the belief that something will ultimately work out, but that it feels true in a very essential way, beyond what is relayed in headlines, opinion polls, and prognostications.

Obviously we are now faced with circumstances that demand some faith on all of our parts. With the uncertainty of a volatile economy and a swirl of other forces, there is plenty to be pessimistic about. And if we consider Havel’s story, the antidote is not to be optimistic in the sense of desperately looking for something that tells us everything will be alright or return to being as it was. Rather, the more powerful response comes from within and attaches itself to what most deeply motivates us, what tastes most like truth. Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities has said that, “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” That may be the promise of this slowdown, if we can quiet the chatter, avoid panic and attune ourselves to what is waiting to grow out of the cracks in the foundation. The question is, in following those roots, how deep are we willing to go?


  • Gibran says:

    Wow Curtis, you just got really deep here – thank you for your authenticity and for sharing so much of your own quest. This resonates so deeply for me, specially the distinction between hope and optimism, the call to look at what is real.

    The wise ones of so many cultures, times and traditions keep pointing us to surrender to uncertainty so that we may become whole, they they keep inviting us to leap into that space. Thanks for doing it again, you are inviting us to be free.

  • Santiago says:

    Great post Curtis. The fringes of this reminds me of something I read from Josef Pieper. He was a German Catholic philosopher who, for the short of it, said we have three choices; presumption, despair and hope. The former two are the enemies and destroyers of hope. We need hope. Powerful stuff, thanks!!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    What strikes me most, Curtis, is the last quote you offer. “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” I agree. And history teaches us that movements that create new cultures and new social arrangements are catalyzed by those who are already insecure and living on the margins. Their fearlessness is not about boldly journeying from security to consciously chosen insecurity. That is the challenge for the privileged and comfortable. Their fearlessness is about standing boldly in the knowledge that they are already insecure, disenfranchised, oppressed; knowing that their liberty and even their lives could be taken away; and yet refusing to be diminished or intimidated.

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