Sometimes it takes a tragedy so terrible that it leaves us staggering in shock and disbelief to remind us that hope is not a natural virtue.
It is, rather, a supernatural virtue — and one that has nothing to do with probability or expectation. Hope's true meaning eludes us and is understood only to God. This is why G. K. Chesterton said: “As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”
As dark clouds descended on sections of Manhattan and Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, it was as though night had arrived early — not only at ground zero, but across the civilized world. “It is a dark day for the history of humanity,” said Pope John Paul II. Indeed, his meaning can be taken both figuratively and literally.
In New York, here was a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, a soul-wrenching grief of indescribable intensity. In the grip of this grisly urban holocaust, visited in an instant upon a place that moments before was humming with the lively drone of “just another day at the office,” how does one begin to find hope?
Hope is a supernatural virtue and man is a hopeful being. There is a corollary to Dante's description of hell as a place where there is no hope. It is this: The person who is without hope is already in hell. Every fiber of our being is tuned to hope. Tomorrow will be a better day! Yet we still need to see some visible sign of hope, if it is going to animate us.
After impact, the twin towers of the World Trade Center quickly filled with smoke. Visibility soon edged to the vanishing point. Some office workers could not see their own hand six inches in front of their face. Scrambling to safety became a problem even for those on the lower floors. Some got caught in a revolving door, unable to determine which way was out. Then rescue squads arrived. Flashlights provided both light and hope. People were told to form a human chain. In this way, through touch and the soft glow of the rescuers’ lights, they found their way to safety, though many less fortunate were left behind.
The towers were secular monuments to the importance of the world of finance. Money, of course, is not the object of man's deepest need to hope. Suddenly, after the hijacked planes jolted three buildings, all attention shifted to the essentials: life, love, care, camaraderie, cooperation. There was heroism and extraordinary generosity. The nation became unified and mobilized. Republicans and Democrats who are wont to be at each other's throats now stood, however briefly, as one. President Bush promised that “terrorism against the United States will not stand.” America's neighbor to the north utilized its airports to accommodate foreign flights that were not allowed to land in the United States. Canadian citizens wept openly, donated their blood, pledged their help and offered hospitality to foreign travelers.
It was an inspiring show of the solidarity of the human family. And yet the question remained: How does one find hope in such oppressive gloom? When John Henry Newman, as a young man, left Sicily and began sailing for home. He crossed the Mediterranean bound for Marseilles. But his ship was becalmed for an entire week in the doldrums between Corsica and Sardinia in the Straits of Bonifacio. It was on this occasion that he penned his most endearing poem, which begins:
Lead Kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home — Lead Thou me on.
The poem brings many things to mind: Newman's own loneliness, depressed spirit and homesickness, as well as the darkness of the world, the darkening of man's relationship to his fellow man, and the eclipse of God. The enveloping multi-layered darkness moved him to recognize, with great emotional conviction, the compelling significance of light and hope. The recent terrorist assault brings to mind other sudden and unexpected catastrophes; the sinking of the Titanic and the attack on Pearl Harbor spring instantly to mind. It brings to mind that particular national trauma which is the most horrendous of its kind ever to take place on American soil, the Civil War.
How did the defeated general of a defeated South think about hope at a moment when his world was engulfed by gloom? This is what Robert E. Lee said: “The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our own desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us hope.”
America is a nation of resolve and resilience. These qualities will serve to bring about her rebirth through a renewed dedication to honor and live by the essentials of life. This itself is something worth hoping for, a hope reborn in the ruins of lesser hopes.
Catastrophes have a way of clarifying what is important and what is not so important. We take the essential things for granted and it sometimes takes a calamity to remind us of the priority we should give them in our lives. Therefore, we can find hope even in death. America will not allow her beacon of hope to be extinguished either for herself, her citizens or the other nations throughout the world that also believe in freedom and hope for a better life.
Donald DeMarco is a philosophy professor at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.