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Do We Have to Choose Between Hope and Reality?

By       Message John Bardi     Permalink
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To many people Obama represents hope for a better world. For others, the hope for a better world represented by Obama is a deception that masks a reluctance to face reality.

Let's forget about Obama for a moment and look instead at the deeper contrast between the promise of hope and the disappointments of reality. Interestingly, this contrast between hope and reality is foundational in the human psyche and dates at least as far back as early Greek mythology.

Hesiod, tells the story of the twin Titans--Prometheus, who looked ahead and thus can be seen as a metaphor for liberal progress, and Epimetheus, who looked backwards while running ahead, and thus can be seen as a metaphor for social conservatism. Epimetheus was supposed to give a positive trait to every animal, but because he was constantly looking backwards, he gave all the positive traits away too soon and thus had nothing left to give to man. To make up for his mistake, his brother, Prometheus, stole fire (representing technology) from Zeus and gave it to man.

When Zeus found out he was furious. In a touch that lucidly captures the sexism that is at the heart of European culture, he ordered the first woman created in order to get back at man. Her name was Pandora, and she was full of deception and treachery but so beautiful that even the gods were "seized by wonder" when they saw her. Zeus gave her an enticing box full of curses--Pandora's box--and sent her down to the world of man. Epimetheus, ignoring his brother's foresightful warning not to accept any gifts from Zeus, embraced Pandora and opened the box, whereupon the curses flew out and infected human life with toil, misery, suffering, disease, and death. Unfortunately, the one salve--hope--remained in the box, hidden under the lid, leaving humans to endure the greatest suffering without expectation of improvement.

People today who see in Obama the hope for a better world are the heirs of this myth. They see hope as good and essential, an elixir that makes a struggle against an evil system possible. Rather than leave it hidden in the box, it must be brought out and shared.

Interestingly, an alternative version of the myth was presented by Theognis of Megara. In his telling, Pandora's Box was full of many blessings--trust, restraint, grace, true understanding, and genuine piety--and only one curse. When the box was opened, the blessings all escaped back to Mt. Olympus, leaving humanity in dire shape, prone to embrace evil as seeming good. Humanity would have given up were it not for the one curse left--expectant hope--which deludes humanity to continue to struggle and work despite the crushing burden of impossible circumstances.

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People today who see clearly the curses of our system--its heartless cruelty and cunning exploitation artfully cloaked in layers of deception and illusion--are the heirs of this version of the myth. Seeing hope as a cruel seductress, they struggle valiantly against the system without the false nourishment of hope.

So here we find in the primeval mythological foundations of Western civilization, the dynamics of the argument over Obama. Is hope a good thing (believing in Obama helps us to join together to be the change we want to see)...or a bad thing (believing in Obama only opens us to the same curses in a different disguise)?

This struggle between expectant hope and cruel reality can be found in daily discussions and blog postings about Obama. Again and again the crux of the discussion is whether believing in Obama sustains us as we work to change how things are...or blinds us to cruel reality of how the system operates. Frequently, those who believe in the hope Obama brings tend to view others who give voice to truths about how the system works as negative and obstructionist. Conversely, those who see hope as a deceiver tend to view others who believe in the hope Obama brings as delusional and even child-like.

So who is right? Hegel once remarked that the deep and passionate conflicts of our lives are portrayed in melodrama as a struggle between right and wrong and in the more mature form of tragedy as a struggle between two different views of the right. In that sense, this conflict is tragic: that is, both sides are right.

Let me, therefore, try to frame the conflict differently. Nothing comes without a hazard. Sustaining hope that a better world is possible comes with the hazard that one could become resistant to the details of the dark truth of how the system actually works. Conversely, knowing the dark details of how the system actually works comes with the hazard that one could lose hope that a better world is possible. The spiritual challenge of today, therefore, is to have both the dark facts about the world that is while simultaneously sustaining the bright hope for a world that could be.

Now back to Obama....

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John Bardi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Penn State-Mont Alto. He is also a musician and has been playing blues and rock guitar since 1961.

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