Is there an antidote for all this hopelessness? J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on August 29, 2021

Recently I drove from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

A couple of hours into my trip, as I drove through dense wildfire smoke near Lake Tahoe, I saw a WhatsApp message pop up on my phone from a friend in Haiti whom I had become close with when I lived there in 2013. He was OK, but he forwarded me a video of the devastation from the Aug. 14 earthquake in Haiti that had been making the rounds.

I thought it would let up, but the smoke continued into Nevada. Soon after I crossed into the state, a text from my sister popped up on my phone. I saw the word Kabul in it and I knew instantly what the news was. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. Twenty years of war; good Afghans putting themselves on the line for democracy, womens rights and decency; and American blood and dollars all for nothing. A humanitarian disaster loomed.

As I drove across Nevada, the haze from climate changeinduced wildfires persisted.

I considered what music or podcasts to listen to. The day after Trump won in 2016, I had listened to the podcast Keepin It 1600, the predecessor of the clever, upbeat and funny Pod Save America.

I felt that the young former Obama staffers who made the podcast that day in 2016 were grossly ill-equipped to make sense of what had just happened. They were sad, shocked and apologetic about their mistaken predictions, but it somehow didnt feel like enough to me. This moment was deeper than they wanted to go. It felt as if the news was supporting Hegels assertion that history is a slaughter bench. Some days history can feel like idealism continuously being snuffed out by the evil, tragedy and entropy that lead to so much human suffering.

On my drive to Utah, my next stop was a gas station in Nevada. I glanced at the New York Times front page. Taliban Seize Afghanistan: U.S. Scrambles to Evacuate Americans.

I thought of an Afghan acquaintance from college who is a journalist in his home country. What will become of him? I thought of what it means that the United States is a top emitter of greenhouse gases and were so broken when it comes to collective action that we cant even get everyone vaccinated. I thought about the children I lived with when I taught a journalism program in Haiti in 2013. What will their lives look like?

There certainly werent easy sources of hope in a week like that.

What I do know, however, is that the only responses that hold water for me on such days begin with an understanding that we cant possibly conceive of all the suffering in the world.

As I sped across Utahs salt flats, with haze still in the air, I was reminded of the Hebrew Bibles book of Lamentations. Lamentations uses poetry to describe in gruesome detail the massacre following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Lamentations doesnt provide answers. But what it does do is express despair, anger and hopelessness while also evoking yud-hey-vav-hey, Gods unpronounceable name.

The Christian scholar of the Hebrew Bible Walter Brueggemann writes that praising yud-hey-vav-hey helps us imagine a human existence that dramatically reorients itself to prioritize justice. Brueggemann describes that with Moses evocation of yud-hey-vav-hey came the speaking of a new name [of God] that redefines all social perception.

In contemporary times it may seem trite to offer prayers for the people of Afghanistan, for our grandchildren or for the people of Haiti. And yet, in a week like last week, the only approaches that make sense to me involve a God that is mysterious and totally beyond us, but that helps us to imagine a world that is radically different.

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Is there an antidote for all this hopelessness? J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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