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Wishful Thinking

“Hope” and “change” are words that are being slung around quite regularly lately. From Obama, Clinton and McCain south of the border to Ed Stelmach in my home province of Alberta to the eminently hopeful Oprah Winfrey, everybody’s selling something revolutionary—something which will offer us a brighter future, one in which things will, finally, change for the better. Hope might not be very realistic, and it may be historically unjustified, but it certainly does sell, as politicians (and Christopher Hitchens) know as well as anyone.

Selling hope is, of course, parasitic upon a level (preferably a manageable one) of discontent. Even in cases where people are mostly satisfied with the status quo—the province of Alberta, for example, where the Progressive Conservatives have now won eleven (!) consecutive majority governments—Ed Stelmach was eager to point out that he had “new ideas, new energy, new leadership for a new century.” Even a party that’s been in power for forty odd years has to keep things “new” and “progressive. If ever there was a case where you might think you could get away with selling “old” ideas, you would think it would be in Alberta politics, but that’s just not how election campaigns are run. Old ideas are interesting, perhaps, but new ones are always better—or at least more exciting and marketable

No one knows this better than Oprah—the one we turn to for all of our spiritual, relational, personal health, book-selection, and assorted other real or imagined needs. The Washington Post ran a pretty funny column yesterday discussing Oprah’s apparent inability to make up her mind whether or not her life really has been fundamentally revolutionized from one year to the next, or which diet, new book, philosophy, or spiritual program is responsible for said revolution. I was under the (obviously misguided) impression that Oprah discovered the “secret” to life last year, but it seems that was only a dress rehearsal (or maybe it just didn’t “take”) for this year’s book that has changed her life and revealed the path to universal happiness.

(I’m getting a little confused—last year I was supposed to just think the right thoughts and all of my wishes would just instantly come true, but this year it seems I’m supposed to transcend my selfish attachment to ego. It all sounds very bewildering to me, but I guess if I just watch her show and buy her products she [or one of her gurus] will sort things out for me eventually. I hope. Conceptual clarity and consistency aren’t, I suppose, high on Oprah’s list of desirable life-changing ideas. Personally, I think that getting “awakened,” “revolutionized,” or having my entire way of looking at the world fundamentally altered on such a regular basis would get a little tiring and disorienting, but I digress…)

However convoluted and inconsistent the latest gimmick being sold by Oprah might be, however trivial, dishonest, and vacuous our political discourse, however little evidence we might have that “new” equals “better,” each of these things point to the fundamental human need for hope for a better future. We can’t help but hope, to expect that the future will be better than the present, that one day—who knows when?—things will be as they ought to be. Someone’s going to make our deepest longings come true, whether it’s Jesus or Oprah, Barack Obama or Ed Stelmach. We are, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “wishful thinkers”:

Christianity is mainly wishful thinking. Even the part about judgment and hell reflects the wish that somewhere the score is being kept. Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.

“Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.” I like how Buechner puts that. It allows us to view the hope being sold on TV and in the political arena with a mixture of cynicism and understanding. We are cynical because we know that nobody’s going to be able to deliver on the kinds of promises that are frivolously tossed around to buy votes or sell books and DVD’s; but we understand that human beings are plagued by discontent (some of it manufactured, some of it inherent in the human condition) and are incorrigible hopers. We understand that the truth that we are set wishing for in our various ways, is both real and necessary.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    Nice post Ryan. Very entertaining read. I am depressed by the candidates for the next election but I haven’t given up hope for my homeland yet.

    March 4, 2008
  2. Thanks jc. My distance from the American political scene mostly prevents me from being depressed about the candidates, but when I see serious news agencies discussing whether or not crying in public has turned around someone’s election campaign, I do get a little suspicious…

    March 5, 2008

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