January 30, 2023

Starting the Year with Hope

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | Jan. 14, 2023

My wife and I return from several weeks in Sweden and Italy with renewed feelings of hope. Taking a page from the Greek Stoics, we resolve to worry only about those things which we can control. It is humbling to realize how short that list is, and how painfully long the list is of the things we cannot control.

When you are away from the States for any length of time, you realize how infinitesimally small your concerns are in the larger universe of concerns and how little the world notices, and cares, about our broken political system. We met and dined with people from the Netherlands, from different Swedish provinces, Florence, Siena, and the Eternal City, Rome.

We interacted with Moroccans and Nigerians, heard languages and dialects foreign to us. And there was the ebony brother from South Africa with his blond wife and blond baby boy. This mélange of humanity is a vivid reminder that our world is a colorful mixture of people, each perfect in their own right. Even though our distinctive American accents set us apart and outed us at every turn, no one ordered us to “go back where you belong.” We were where we were; and it was assumed that since we were there, we had every right to be there.

When we were younger, we considered international cultural differences weird because they were, well, different. It was later that we realized that the differences were beside the point. There are many different ways to be a human, no perfect way toward self-actualization, no perfect way to exist and coexist on this blue ball we call home. Perhaps when more of us realize this immutable fact, we will begin to treat our home with more respect.

At no point in time did any of these gentle souls ask us about conservatives versus liberals (whatever those maligned terms mean) or Republicans versus Democrats.

We forget how heavy the burdens are that we carry each day as we attempt to navigate the snares and pitfalls of “post-racial” America. We become numb to the poisonous and toxic drain on our minds and our spirits brought about by forces seeking to divide us for their own political gain.

An entire essay could be written about Italy’s automobile traffic. On several occasions, we seemed to die a thousand deaths, our lives cut short by a tiny car being driven with seemingly reckless disregard for the panic-stricken Americans clinging to the ancient Roman walls. The first rule of driving in Rome—if there are any rules at all—is to do as little harm as possible. If harm becomes unavoidable, don’t let it ruin your day. Call it the Spartacus rules of engagement.

In The Innocent Abroad, Mark Twain wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Things have changed very little since Twain wrote those words in 1869. Not only travel abroad, but travel within the continental United States. In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson wrote that one of the antidotes to racial and ethnic animus is proximity. We simply need to associate more with people who don’t look like us, people with whom we appear to have nothing in common. By doing so, our minds expand beyond our current preoccupations and preconceived notions.

We started this first essay of 2023 with reflections of hope, and we have not forgotten it, and so we return to that forlorn and often missing ingredient in all that we do.

In our travels, we learned anew that a sense of hope inspires millions of people across the globe in many different languages. It’s a belief in things unseen, unrealized, and difficult to conceive happening to us right here, right now. And that hope does not reside in one person, one group, one way of seeing the world. Hope is expansive; without it, we become easily led and manipulated by empty slogans and paper-thin promises.

“Hope,” the great Czech dissident playwright turned president Václav Havel wrote, “...is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Try as I might, I find it impossible to add to Mr. Havel’s wise words. There is a monument in St. Peter’s Square dedicated to the world’s migrants and refugees. The Angels Unaware boat by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmaltz depicts 140 migrants, ranging from a Jewish man escaping Nazi Germany to a Syrian refugee fleeing the civil war, was inspired by the passage: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers…”

This is a message for all cultures, all races, all religions.

Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.

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