O'BRIEN: President Snow on Hope
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2012 00:04
I recently finished “The Hunger Games,” the first part in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy, about a post-apocalyptic America where an oppressive government orchestrates a grim spectacle in which two teenagers from each of the nation’s 12 districts battle to the death in a competitive reality television show of sorts.
I even snuck away on Holy Saturday to watch the wildly successful movie. In the movie, there is a scene in which the evil President Snow counsels Seneca Crane, the orchestrator of the macabre annual games. Explaining why there must be only one winner, Snow says diabolically, “Hope: It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained. So, contain it.”
Ironically, just a few hours later, I preached about hope at the Vigil Mass for Easter in Dahlgren Chapel. In the Christian tradition, hope ultimately rests in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is God’s most eloquent demonstration that death and violence will not have the last word. Life triumphs over death, love over hate and, yes, hope over fear.
Hope is a fundamentally human experience. We are hard-wired to hope. To quote the poet Alexander Pope, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” We innately long for lasting meaning, security, love, intimacy, joy and peace. In the Catholic imagination, these are holy longings because everything that is human is in the playground of the divine.
But here’s the challenge: Too often, these human longings meet frustration. A loved one dies. We lose our job. We get dumped by a significant other. We do poorly on a paper. The Red Sox lose again. Such is life. Yet, we still hope, because hope is the most resilient of human longings.
For Christians, such resilience rests in the good news of Easter, a resilience shared by other religious traditions that profess an ultimate reality beyond this one. Our deepest human longings will be fulfilled and our losses will be redeemed by the God who created us. To borrow from Alban McCoy, Catholic chaplain at the University of Cambridge, hope “gives rise to a confidence that the whole of our lives and the whole of creation is encompassed by and taken up into an inconceivable and infinite Love.” St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, put it simply: “In God alone we place our hope.”
Freud called such hope a delusion, and Marx called it an opiate. But such is not the case for those here on the Hilltop. While we read Freud, Marx and even “The Hunger Games” in our spare time, we are in the business of harnessing hope. This is not shallow optimism, a naive flight of fancy or an escape from reality. On the contrary, hope meets head-on the beauty and brokenness of reality and allows us to find meaning, even in loss and suffering.
This time of year, we often look to nature to remind us how hope springs from the eternal. From branches once barren shoot hints of green.
Now, expand your vision. You can see hope in action in the student who takes time every week to tutor in D.C., the chemistry major who persists in his or her research despite a few failed experiments, the athlete who keeps training despite the physical rigor and tough losses and the young lover who risks to love again or to forgive after being betrayed.
When I first began teaching in a high school in my 20s, a mentor told me not to look for instant gratification. Teaching, he said, is an act of hope. Day in and day out, you lay down your life for your students with the hope that some day, what you do or say will make a difference in their lives and their world — like planting seeds for trees whose shade or fruit you will never enjoy. With hope, the planting or teaching is reward enough.
Before I professed vows as a Jesuit, I was nervous in the face of such a commitment. After many years as a priest, a wise Jesuit told me that the vows are great acts of hope. There are no guarantees in life, except that God will be with you, which is enough cause for hope for the future.
To return to “The Hunger Games,” why is hope so dangerous? Because, to quote Pope Benedict, “the one who has hope lives differently.” Hope breeds long-term commitment. Hope is the fertile ground of imaginative thinking and transformative action, which controlling dictators like President Snow don’t like very much.
Hope cannot be contained. The spark of hope easily catches fire. And lives, families, communities, campuses and countries change as a result.
Fr. O’Brien, S.J., is the vice president of mission and ministry. Fr. O’Brien, Fr. Maher and Fr. Schall alternate as the writers of AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT... , which appears every other Friday. This is the last appearance of this column for the year.