How to Inspire Hope in the Face of Anger

Yesterday I wrote that the antidote to the chain of despair – anger – fear is to offer hope. But Marshal Ganz, who articulated that formula, reminded us that hope doesn’t simply make command performances.

The way we talk about this is not just to go up to someone and say, “Be hopeful.” We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another.

He then went on to describe the three elements of stories that engender hope.

A leadership story is first a story of self, a story of why I’ve been called…We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being, a faithful person…

The second story is the story of us…What experiences and values do we share as a community that call us to what we are called to? What is it about our experience of faith, public life, the pain of the world, and the hopefulness of the world? It’s putting what we share into words…

Finally, there’s the story of now—the fierce urgency of now. The story of now is realizing, after the sharing of values and aspirations, that the world out there is not as it ought to be. Instead, it is as it is. And that is a challenge to us…The difference between those two creates tension. It forces upon us consideration of a choice. What do we do about that?

A perfect example of how that kind of story can inspire hope was the speech Barack Obama gave that first put him in the national spotlight. We need only remember the despair and anger Democrats felt in 2004 after four years of the Bush/Cheney administration. Along comes this skinny black guy with an unusual name who gave this speech at the Democratic Convention.

We’ve all heard it before. But I encourage you to take a listen once again and see how he tells exactly the kind of story Ganz describes – one that includes the story of self, us and now.

Obama starts off by talking about his own story of being the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas .

My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or “blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential…

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

He went on to talk about the issues of the day and told the story of the candidate – John Kerry. But then he did something very powerful, he merged the story of us with the story of now. I’m going to quote this part at length. But as an alternative, simply watch the video above starting at about the 12:00 mark.

For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga.

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?…I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!

In the face of the fierce anger we all felt at the time, that was a moment of hope. We felt the same thing in everything from Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can!” speech after the New Hampshire primary to the story of American he told at the 50th Anniversary of the march across the bridge in Selma.

That, my friends, is how a leader inspires hope in the face of anger.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .