“My theory has always been, that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter, than the gloom of despair.” – Thomas Jefferson
“We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.” – Albert Einstein
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” – C.S. Lewis
Ask any physicist, and he or she will tell you that one of the great puzzles of the physical universe is the apparent slight asymmetry between matter and antimatter. We’re told that when matter and antimatter come in contact, they destroy each other in a burst of energy. Had the two forms been present at the creation in precisely equal amounts, our universe would not exist. Apparently, according to the physicists, there’s just the slightest asymmetry, amounting to no more than one part in a billion. But that slight edge has given matter a truly stunning victory, yielding all the stars and galaxies and interstellar dust that we know as our universe.
We would do well to be equally interested in why hope appears to dominate despair in our known world.
You might argue with this premise. But it seems that even in the world’s most desperate corners, even where famine or disease or hatred seem to hold an upper hand, hope carries on. And certainly, the world over, most of us today will experience a world that shows preponderant hopeful behavior. Desperate actions will be the exception. Why this imbalance? The Thomas Jefferson quote seems to suggest that we opt for hope because it provides the more pleasant delusion. But the C.S. Lewis thought reminds us that hope is to be distinguished from mere wishful thinking. For those of us living on the real world, hope should be reality-based if it’s to be valued at all.
It can be argued that hope has been on something of a roll for the past two thousand years. Let’s take the Middle East, for example. At first blush, the news headlines from that part of the world might seem to be sending a different message. We read daily of acts of sectarian terrorism and violence and wholesale government repression throughout the region. But think back two millennia. At that time, ordinary men and women were confronted by rampant corruption and hypocrisy in their local leaders… especially their religious ones. War swept over the region periodically as Assyrians, then Babylonians, then Romans invaded and occupied the land and the peoples. Justice was rare. Food and other necessities were scant; poverty was the rule. Life was hardscrabble and uncertain. God as they knew and understood him was remote, stern and unforgiving.
Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, enumerates several causes for improved times since. As summarized in the Wikipedia link, he identifies four better angels: empathy, self-control, the moral sense, and reason. He also cites five historical forces: The Leviathan, commerce, feminization, cosmopolitanism, and what he call the escalator of reason (“intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’s, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.” )
But just as the preponderance of matter over antimatter begs the question, it might be worth asking whether some deeper reality underlies and gives life to these social trends.
For many, especially at this time of year, the birth of Jesus comes to mind. Just one birth of many; something like that one excess particle of matter over antimatter out of a billion. Seemingly inconsequential, yet carrying emergent effects that have grown over time, driving home these ideas: that God is love, not mere stern judgment; that we are created in His image, making our lives not just to be valued but to be considered sacred; that He is not at all remote, but indwells each of us; and that we don’t have to be imprisoned or eternally burdened down by our past mistakes and shortcomings. Today, regardless of our faith persuasion, we take these notions for granted. But that was not the case for those people of the Middle East two thousand years ago. The hymn’s lyrics capture this:
“O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
A reason for celebration. Cause for hope.
Merry Christmas/Happy holidays.
 Alternatively (and this reveals some of the uncertainty here), it may be that matter and antimatter are simply physically separated in our universe. Astrophysicists and cosmologists are searching for signs that somewhere there exists a boundary between the two.
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”