The Space Between Hope and Despair

It’s smaller than you think — and something beautiful can be found in the middle.

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MAC SIMONSON/A24.  In "First Reformed," Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) and a parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) grapple with conflicted feelings of hope and despair.

In the film First Reformed, a reverend and environmentalist are experiencing existential crises — each waging a battle between hope and despair. In one exchange, the environmentalist shares his conflicting feelings about being an expectant father yet having to answer for the catastrophic effects climate change will have on the earth his unborn daughter will inherit as an adult. He asks, “What will I say when she looks at me and asks — ‘You let this happen?’”

Reverend Tiller responds by describing the need to embrace both despair and hope in our lives. Suggesting without some despair there is no need for hope. While at the same time extolling us that too much despair blinds us from seeing any hope at all.

The effects of their exchanges are both thrilling and devastating.

This last week, as I attended multiple moving up ceremonies and parties for my children, I could not help but feel hopeful. Yet hours later sitting in front of a computer, I listened to the cries of children separated from their parents at the border, I similarly could not help but feel despair.

In almost every aspect of our lives, in ways big and small, we can see the ideas of hope and despair plotted along a continuum — we, in the middle. like a swinging pendulum swaying from one side to the next.
When we fall sick, we feel despair at what we are unable to do. When we begin to feel better, we are hopeful at what we can now accomplish.
When we fail at work, we feel despair at wasted effort and time. When a new project comes along we feel hopeful at what success it might bring.
When we have a fight with our partner, we feel despair at the pall it casts over our days. When we make up, life feels right again.
Within our personal lives, events will bring despair one moment and hope the next. Often, in these instances, there are things firmly within our control that can help us swing that balance.
In the larger world order, when we consider the state of our planet, our country, our politics, it becomes trickier. They feel beyond our control and we feel powerless.
Maintaining a healthy balance between hope and despair is difficult. A little of either spurs us to act, too much leads us to paralysis. In the case of despair, the belief our actions will do no good while too much hope can lead us to think the problems will take care of themselves.
In our daily lives, it is important to recognize the yin and yang of hope and despair and how we are feeding these two impulses.
How much time do you spend mired in the daily news of doom and gloom? How many conversations are you having with Eeyore friends?
Conversely, how much time are you spending with your head in the clouds? How many optimistic conversations do you have with the rainbows and unicorns set?
In the stirring conclusion of First Reformed, it offers that the middle ground between hope and despair is occupied by grace — the disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.
When in doubt, move the pendulum with an act of grace.

(In this spirit, here are a list of actions you can take if moved by by children separated at our borders.)

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