Hope is the thing with feathers

The following article was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

On a sunny day in November in Menorca it is easy to forget the grey, drizzly autumn days of our time in western Canada – the ‘wet coast’ as its inhabitants are wont to describe it. I used to joke that the ‘British’ in British Columbia was a clue to its weather. Four decades ago, on a grey day in mid-November, we moved house from the city of Ottawa to am old Ontario farmhouse. The temperature dropped by a dozen degrees during the day and by the end of it there was snow. When we came to Menorca we were warned about the two worst months: November and February. Our first November was rather like this one: mild, with plenty of sunny days. It becomes easy to forget the Ontario snow, the British Columbia drizzle, the bare English trees and muddy. or frosty fields.

It can indeed become easy to forget one circumstance when immersed in another. This may be a characteristic of Menorca, which bears some resemblance to the land of the lotus eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, where people ate lotus flowers and, according to Odysseus: ‘A single taste of this native fruit made my soldiers forget everything they had ever known; where they were from, where they were going, everything.’

Yet, perversely, we can be nostalgic creatures. Recently Kate asked me why people seem determined to revisit persistently in conversation what they believe to be their former glories. It seems to be a result of the way that we are constructed mentally, with the functions of imagination and memory sharing the same part of the brain. We never really remember anything: we reimagine it, which is why nostalgic and sentimental recollections bear the hallmark of rose-tinted rear-view mirrors. The combined complication of selective memory and selective forgetting hark back to what I wrote in August, quoting Barbra Streisand: ‘what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.’ Perhaps. Drizzle, snow, frost and fallen leaves are not really painful; but the sun is still quite warm in Menorca and it melts the colder memories.

This may be something to bear in mind when we are immersed in a dark period of life. What is immediate can seem overpowering and permanent at times. The rose-tinted rear view mirror makes us long for a ‘better time’ that went before. We forget that life tends to move in cycles, or pendulum swings, or whatever metaphor works best in order to remind ourselves that things swing back and forth, that they seldom stay the same, that they probably were not all that much better in the past, and that we can not only envisage but actually contribute to a brighter future – as long as we are willing to confront the possibility that things will inevitably be different from before, and accept the prospect of change.

This is one of the seeds of hope, that divinely-given human trait, that sustains us through adversity. Much of the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) is concerned with hope in difficult or challenging circumstances, especially exile and suffering. The New Testament is about hope in the face of what seems vulnerability and hopelessness. Hope is one of four themes that run through the season of Advent that precedes and anticipates Christmas, alongside peace, love and joy. These are all intertwined in the birth of the Christ child, by whom they are sent spinning out into human life. Hope is particularly important to many of us at the moment, when we may hold fast to Alexander Pope’s words: ’Hope springs eternal in the human breast.’

Emily Dickinson captured the importance and resilience of human hope in one of her poems:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

We do well to embrace hope and hopefulness, even when times seem dire, and drab days seem endless. Instead of wallowing in the dark difficulties of a time of constrained life, we can do our best to care for those around us by being compassionately aware of their needs, and doing what we can to prepare for a different kind of future. We never really know what is around the corner, be it a sunny winter day, or a testing time of Tramuntana. Being alert and aware of our surroundings, using our skills for the common good, and making the most of living in the moment may be the best way to embrace life at the moment.

Otherwise we may discover, as Agatha Christie wrote in The Third Girl, one of her novels of Hercule Poirot, that: ‘Hell is the truth learned too late.’

One Response to Hope is the thing with feathers

  1. John Cooper 2020/12/27 at 18:33 #

    We, from the UK, have received more from your services than any of our local clergy have provided. Bring on the day when over 100 Bishops become 10. We greatly appreciate your care.
    Happy New Year to all
    John, Duncan and Lilian

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