The Ongoing Complexity of Hope

Dec 21, 2023

“On this last darkest day of the year,” sings Ann Reed, “let our hearts meet.”[1]

Tomorrow the days will start to lengthen. Today I am reflecting on the complexities of darkness and what this darkest day of the year might reveal about hope.

This time of year seems marked by both connection and isolation, despair and hope. For some of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s dark when we go to work and dark when we get home. Our bodies feel sluggish, depression and anxiety symptoms increase, and sleep cycles become more disregulated than usual. At the same time, the cold wintery mornings and long evenings provide extra opportunities for cozy snuggles in front of the fireplace and meeting up with friends to enjoy hot drinks or holiday lights. Holiday cards and shared meals, like the long nights, also open us to a multiplicity of experiences. There are moments of solidarity and awareness of the web of connection in which we are embedded. There are opportunities to practice giving and receiving. And there are moments of feeling invisible or noticing the painful gap between what we envisioned (for life, a holiday gathering, or anything in between) and the reality in front of us. 

A couple of years ago I spent the evening of the longest night gathered with others around a crackling bonfire. There were a couple of farmers, a social worker, a chaplain, a teacher, a minister, an engineer; in other words, people who grow plants and cultivate hearts and design spaces and are deeply familiar with long processes during which you can't always see the outcome. We sang and talked and shared moments of silence, read poetry and reflected on our hopes for the coming year, some people voicing them and some holding them silently in their hearts. I remember watching a couple of children who were enthralled with the fire, taking sticks from the blaze and passing flames from stick to stick. The burning sticks would glow individually for a few moments before being tossed into the collective glow, many tongues of flame dancing together in one crackling fire.

Kelley Nikondeha uses the phrase “the ongoing complexity of hope” in the subtitle of her book The First Advent in Palestine. In her book, Nikondeha tells the stories of countless women who have navigated the complexities of hope in the face of confusion and violence, solidarity and misunderstanding, joyful anticipation and dread. As I’ve played that phrase, “the ongoing complexity of hope,” over and over in my mind I’ve started picturing myself in a circle of women, being formed by their words, all of our hopes and fears blazing singly and joining into a flame that was burning long before we were born and will continue long after our lifetimes.

In the circle, along with Kelley Nikondeha, I imagine poet Jan Richardson, and I find myself buoyed up by the closing lines of her poem “A Blessing for the Longest Night.”

Set out on the road

you cannot see.

This is the night

when you can trust

that any direction

you go,

you will be walking

toward the dawn.[2]

I imagine Cole Arthur Riley gazing into the flames and talking about hope as a battered exhale, and I feel deeply seen, held in the permission granted by Riley’s words.

“the truth is

My hope is mangled.

It limps and creaks

At night.

You speak of hope like a

White bird soaring.

It’s okay that mine is

The battered exhale,

A bench with splintered wood.”[3]

Also standing, with hands stretched out over the rising warmth and a slight smile curling the side of her mouth, is Esther Perel, who says, “Let’s talk about hope. We often think of hope as a wish or want. In scripture, hope is akin to trust.”[4]

“Yes!” I imagine myself saying, “and the Hebrew word for hoping and waiting is related to the word ‘line.’ Like weight making a plumb line function, and just the right amount of tension making an instrument string sing, the pulling in two directions at once doesn’t necessarily hinder. It can make possible whatever is supposed to happen next.”

We stand in silence for a while, marinating in each other’s words. Something releases in me as Riley leads us in a breath prayer.

Inhale: I can be present to sadness

Exhale: without being enslaved by it.

Inhale: I will not dismiss this pain.

Exhale: Hope still tells the truth.[5]

If you, too, find yourself pondering the complexities of hope during this longest night, may you know deep down the life-giving processes that unfold in the dark (think of the darkness of the ground, the darkness of the womb, etc.) and may you find yourself in the company of others who recognize that embracing hopelessness is itself a way to cultivating hope.

Who are the people in your circle whose presence or words help you embrace the complexity of hope?

What tangible actions help you get through the "winter"?[6]


Written by Jody Washburn


[1] Ann Reed, lyrics of “Carolyn’s Party (Solstice)” on a 2017 album entitled Winter Springs, Summer Falls. When I listen to this line, I can’t quite tell if she is saying “meet,” “be,” or “beat.” They all emphasize a slightly different part of the same mental picture for me.  “Let our hearts meet;” “let our hearts beat,” “let our hearts be, burning bright.”

[2] Jan Richardson, “A Blessing for the Longest Night,” in The Cure for Sorrow.

[3] Cole Arthur Riley @BlackLiturgies, Instagram post, February 7, 2022. Check out the prayer to the “God of complicated hope,” that is also part of this post. It is so spacious and honest.

[4] Esther Perel. I don’t remember where I heard her talk about hope in these exact words, but something similar was posted @EstherPerelOfficial on Instagram on December 21, 2022.

[5] Cole Arthur Riley @BlackLiturgies, Instagram post, February 7, 2022.

[6] This question comes from MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s book Hope: A User’s Manual, p. 126.

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