It would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been a difficult year. Each of us has been tested, both individually and as a society, in ways large and small. Many have suffered devastating losses and are battling grief as they head into this holiday season.
This year more than ever, I have been grateful for the wisdom of my colleagues at Public Discourse—both my fellow editors (including new additions Andrew Walker and Dan Burns) and our many talented and insightful authors. Many of my favorite essays from the past year center upon the same theme: the power of hope in the face of despair.
Nearly a year ago, in an essay titled “Quiet Hope: A New Year’s Resolution,” contributing editor RJ Snell confessed that he was “discouraged and frustrated by the state of the world,” beset by “a general malaise, the sense that things are falling apart, the center is not holding, and those things I care about and define my life around are failing.” Long before the pandemic shut down our economy, consigned us to our homes for months, and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, Snell rightly observed that many of us give in to the temptation to despair. This is terribly dangerous. For Christians,
Despair is the unforgivable sin, for the despairing conclude that God will not or cannot act, that the universe is fundamentally unfriendly and inhospitable to the true, good, and beautiful, and that humanity has lost the imago Dei. To judge in this way is to deny the goodness of the world and its Creator and sustainer, and that is the sin of all sins.
As he looked forward to 2020, Snell resolved to resist this temptation, striving instead “to learn a quiet hope.” Even when we are disturbed and troubled, Snell wrote, “It would be far, far better for us if we pondered and waited, prayed and offered our sacrifices, in a quieter hope than we sometimes display… we can be quietly insistent, unrelenting in our efforts, because we have the essential virtue of hope.”
This year has certainly tested our hope. From the pandemic to racial injustice to the civil unrest that increasingly characterizes our fraying republic, the events of the last twelve months have—over and over again—tested our trust that God really can act and that the Creator and his creation really are good, in spite of it all. In the middle of March, just as stay-at-home orders began to descend upon us and deaths began to accelerate, Nathan Schlueter reflected:
The last two weeks have felt surreal, if not apocalyptic. Emotions have quickly gone from general concern to morbid fascination to fear to outright panic, as many of the institutions and ways of life we have long taken for granted bend under the strain. Panic generates its own emotional and spiritual contagion, which can feel more frightening than the virus itself. The effect is magnified by the evacuation of our public spaces, which feels to many like an evacuation of their inner selves.
To combat that emptiness and panic, Schlueter counseled the cultivation of “Leisure in a Time of Coronavirus.” He advised readers to “pray, eat, play, read, and sing… and love.” Like Snell, Schlueter too called on us to reject despair and embrace hope: “We can make this evil an occasion for despair, or we can choose to see it as a ‘severe mercy’ for our benefit, for our joy, and ultimately, for our sanctification.” Our small choices—to pray, to eat, to read, to sing, to love—always matter. But the smallness of our lives during lockdown, as they constricted to the four walls of our homes, made their significance more apparent than ever.
In an essay titled “The Strange Battle of Staying Home,” Haley Stewart observed that our situation reminded her of “stories of the home front during war, the stories of people who are trying to keep the good, the true, and the beautiful alive when everything has been turned upside down by tragedy.” These stories compel us to ask:
How does the human heart bear the anxiety of loved ones constantly in danger? How does the human spirit persist when the duration of suffering is unknown? Could I survive that kind of powerlessness in the face of a great terror? Would I unravel?
Yet, as Stewart pointed out, none of us is truly powerless. “This is my time to be brave in small ways,” Stewart resolved. “My home is my battlefield, and maintaining peace and joy for my family while we help flatten the curve is my fight.” Strange as it is, this battle matters deeply.
Staying home and loving your family can change the world. Our seemingly insignificant acts of love have the power to make life more beautiful through this crisis. And when—by the grace of God—we reach the other side of this nightmare, small acts of love will continue to be what make life worth living.
Stewart looked to literature to uncover and express this truth, but it can be found in other ways too. In “How to Flourish During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Research from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard,” Epidemiologist Tyler Vanderweele drew from the best empirical social science data to help readers understand why and how it is possible to find joy and growth even in the midst of terrible suffering. The key, he wrote, is that “We must remember that both are true: there will be suffering, and there will be opportunities to flourish amidst the loss and pain.”
Hope helps us to see those opportunities. But, as RJ Snell wrote in “Ingratitude, Mob Violence, and Providence,” it can be very difficult for modern man to see the truth embedded in the structure of reality itself.
Our culture’s deep ingratitude is the long, nihilistic outworking of the logic of modern thought itself. When human experience is reduced to only will and power struggle, there no room for gratefulness. Those of us who have not renounced cosmic order and the providence that brings that order to fulfillment, by contrast, know that all things willed or permitted by God work for good. Thus we should be grateful—profoundly grateful—for everything.
In their December essay, “The Great Refusal or Mary’s Fiat: An Advent Reflection,” Graham Dennis and Harrison Kleiner come to the same conclusion. An attitude of receptivity toward the gifts of God has the potential to transform both our culture and our own hearts. Calling Mary’s fiat “a magnanimous expression of receptivity and gratitude,” they write
In the broader cultural sense, adopting Mary’s receptivity would entail a thankful and receptive attitude toward a rich cultural patrimony, inherited tradition, and indeed given nature….
Mary’s fiat—a receptive openness to the givenness of God, nature, and tradition—remains ever open to us. In the face of refusals and cultural dissolution, the Advent season reminds us that there is always hope.
Today, on Gaudete Sunday, we celebrate the joy of hopeful anticipation. Soon, we will celebrate Christ’s birth. We wait in joyful hope—for Christmas, for the end to this pandemic, and for the still greater joy that awaits us when our lives are done.
As we wait, we will do small things with great love. In my home, we will bake St. Lucy Day buns, and my own four-year-old Lucy will deliver them to us, wearing atop her head a crown of greenery, complete with felt candles and flames. We will finally light the rose candle in our Advent wreath, much to the delight of my three-year-old, who tells me many times a day that her favorite color is pink.
Our holiday celebrations will be very different this year. They will be smaller, for one: it will be our first Christmas with just the four of us—my husband, children, and I, with no grandparents, aunts, and uncles joining us to feast and make merry. Even so, I have a feeling we will still find ourselves “Surprised by Christ,” as Karen Swallow Prior put it.
While the rhythms of the church calendar and the demands of our own personal planners offer needed reminders to every heart to prepare Him room, we must also allow for—even expect—surprise….
The small surprises and sacrifices of Christmas—the time, resources, and care our loved ones expend in order to place under glowing trees those bright bundles upon which our own names are written—recall the marvel of Christ’s entry into the world in order to sacrifice himself for those he calls by name. This is the unexpected gift that we ought to be surprised by, over and over, every Christmas—indeed, every morning.
As this year draws to a close, I encourage you to let yourself be surprised by Christ. Let yourself look for the beauty, love, and joy that are hidden amongst fear, suffering, and loneliness. Give thanks for them, share them, and persevere in hope.
If you have appreciated Public Discourse’s work this year, please consider donating to our year-end matching campaign.