New York City skyline.
Photo by Matteo Catanese on Unsplash.
Authentic hope comes from building together
November 16, 2023
The book of Lamentations is a funeral song. The city of Jerusalem has been destroyed, the temple razed, the Israelites exiled to Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah, sitting amid the ruins, takes in the desolation and cries out to God. He sits in despair and hopelessness.
But then Jeremiah utters just four simple words: “Perhaps there is hope” (Lamentations 3:29 NASB).
Even with everything destroyed and the future of his community seemingly shattered, Jeremiah looks around and finds it possible to say, “Perhaps there is hope.”
Amid all the good in our society, we sit amid our own ruins. Regardless of your politics, we Americans feel our nation and society are moving in the wrong direction. Disparities and inequities are growing, not diminishing. COVID and its aftershocks have shaken our very foundations. Wildfires in Hawaii to major flooding along the East Coast to tornadoes in the south have physically destroyed parts of our communities. There’s an epidemic of loneliness.
We are faced with the same question Jeremiah had to confront thousands of years ago: How can we turn our own troubles into hope? Indeed, as we look up and take stock of where we are, how can we engender authentic hope that we can get on a better path?
I am intentionally using the phrase “authentic hope” here. Simply put, too much of what is peddled today is false hope. The same old ways of doing things—comprehensive plans, grandiose schemes, and fancy press conferences—might spark momentary hope but too often make promises we know can’t be fulfilled. After all, we know that society’s problems will not be solved overnight or with a single stroke of a pen; no one I encounter in my work across the nation expects such results. All these false promises do is to diminish hope, increase frustration, even grow cynicism.
We know we are not where we want to be as a country—or as a people. Our work is not done. But the answer is not to give up or retreat. It is not to come out swinging or raise the temperature of an already-heated public square. Rather, we can create authentic hope—and restore belief in one another—by coming together to build again.
Jeremiah understood the distinction between false hope and authentic hope in his use of “perhaps.” The word is conditional. It asks something of us. As Jeremiah looked around at the destruction, hope was not a given. Yet he knew it could be created despite the circumstances. Better yet, he knew he could play a role in creating it. He was under no illusion that he could rebuild Jerusalem by himself. Still, he knew he could make a contribution that would get his community moving forward in a new way.
Americans right now are yearning for a sense that we are moving in a better, more promising direction. We want an alternative to business as usual. Perhaps now, more than at any other time in recent American history, we need to engender authentic hope by building together again. Not by going it alone. Not by trying to move mountains by ourselves. Not by retreating or giving up entirely. Rather, we begin this shared project by turning outward to one another, getting in motion and starting small, and demonstrating that we can indeed move forward together.
The first step is to make a contribution, no matter its size. We must restore our belief in ourselves and one another that we can rebuild together.
Something I appreciate about the biblical stories of Jeremiah and the other prophets is that they show the prophets in their full humanity. They lose hope, they doubt, they feel defeated. Sometimes they even retreat from the community. And yet, time and again, they find the courage to step forward and make a contribution even when the world seems to be against them. Fundamentally, they ask us to face our realities and to imagine a different path forward. This in turn inspires others to join in a shared project of building. And along the way, hope is restored.
Today, we know we are not where we want to be as a country—or as a people. Our work is not done. Like Jeremiah, in many ways we feel surrounded by ruins. But the answer is not to give up or retreat. It is not to come out swinging or raise the temperature of an already-heated public square.
Rather, we can create authentic hope—and restore belief in one another—by coming together to build again. This is what each individual must do. It is what each community must do. And it is what our country needs to do.
In fact, it is what Americans—when we are at our best—have always done. It’s time to build.
Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of the bestselling book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives.