Earning hope

These are cynical times, and this is supposed to be a season of hope.

We have the president of the United States flying off in fierce secrecy at Thanksgiving to greet the American troops in Iraq — an unabashedly Hollywood patriotic moment — followed almost immediately by more deaths of more soldiers far from home.

These are cynical times, and this is supposed to be a season of hope. We have people who’ve worked hard all their lives not sure if they’ll be able to afford medicine and health care in their “golden years,” even with the changes in Medicare. We have people who get up and slog off to work day after day, willing, able, committed, but not sure if the economy will hold or the company will have heart and the job will still be there.

We have people who know that what they’re able to save matters a lot, who don’t have a pension to count on, who study up and try to invest responsibly — choosing money market funds, not high risk stocks — and who find out even that is being skimmed off the top. One report speculated that, for those with longer-term investments, the cost of the skimming might only be $40 a year. That’s not megabucks, but it’s certainly added up to be a worthwhile scam for those perpetrating it, and it’s certainly not right.

These are cynical times, when loyalty often doesn’t seem worth it, when the language of what’s good and right can be spun to support causes that seem anything but. It’s a time when, as someone’s rattling their “collect for charity” bucket at a busy intersection, the drivers waiting at the light do not have confidence that if they dig into their pockets the money will necessarily go to help people — the news is full of scams. At one high-achieving high school, some students, fed up with the cheating their classmates were resorting to in the hopes of landing a spot in Ivy League school, gave the administration a tutorial on how it was being done. Forget peeking over another kid’s shoulder. Think: answers taped to the insides of water bottles, text messaging from students who’d already taken the test, cheat sheets downloaded onto pocket organizers.

It’s a tough time to be a believer — and yet, that’s what Christians are.

So what do people do? Lock the doors? Stop caring?

Not likely, particularly in this season of miracles, of giving gifts and giving thanks and thinking hard about where this New Year — this not-to-be-taken-for-granted gift of a little more time on the planet — might lead.

In many towns, what happens is that people go local: they pour their hearts into what they can put their hands on. They don’t give up. They turn to what they know, what they can learn about, what they believe in, what they can touch. One mother, who got involved in victims’ rights after her daughter was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, said on the 10th anniversary of her daughter’s death that she never would have imagined herself before as a lobbyist and public speaker. But when you have passion for something you know is right, this mother said, the work comes easy.

Here are the kinds of things that ordinary people do.

An elementary school principal comes to her Sunday school class to ask for support for a particular family at Christmas. They know her, they trust her — if she says these people need help, they really do. And they recognize that a blended family of eight — a husband, wife and their four children, plus two other children of a relative they’ve taken in — are going to need some help. “I asked for a big family,” the principal said matter of factly. “I know that we are fortunate, and we can do it.”

That same church held a potluck lunch not long ago for a Muslim Somali family they’re helping to resettle — a potluck held jointly with a Unitarian congregation and some Lutherans and Episcopalians, all of whom were sponsoring Somali refugees too. This is trust work, the opposite of cynical. When the Somali woman steps off the plane and they find out she’s eight months pregnant with another baby, they just send out another e-mail, this time asking for baby supplies. When the husband calls and says she’s in labor, someone rushes to the hospital to be with her and someone else takes in the younger children. The church folk marvel at how this woman has given birth before in a tent, with no medical help, and how uncomfortable she and her husband are with the modern American world of hospitals and machines and especially with male obstetricians. They are humbled by how much this Somali family has endured and how far they have traveled.

They end up, of course, with more baby clothes than the apartment has room for. The children return home to the apartment with more new toys. At the potluck, the new black-skinned Muslim baby is passed around to dozens of cooing white American Christians — no English words needed here. The smiles are universal.

These are people who are cynical about politics, about the economy, about institutional loyalty, about the likelihood of peace or integrity in international affairs. They recognize that the world is changing — that online dating is ubiquitous, that grade-schoolers are instant messaging, that celebrity often trumps substance, that new forms of connectedness and community are emerging, that the technology they’re just starting to understand is already being displaced.

And yet, some things stand solid. When there’s a loss, a disaster, suffering, people rally round in the old-fashioned way. Folks show up at the door with brownies and casseroles. They come with ladders and hammers to fix the storm-battered roof. When a marriage breaks up — one of those that seemed good on the outside — people don’t react, “Oh, of course, what else did we expect?” They are still pained at the breakup of a family, still surprised.

There are still people willing to coach kids’ basketball teams — including a young college graduate with no children of her own, just about to start medical school, who said her father always used to coach her teams and she had a lot of fun playing basketball and now it’s her chance to give back. Or the mom who can do a hip-hop rendition at the chalkboard of how the vowels leap right over the silent consonants in a word like “taught” — who comes two mornings a week to tutor someone else’s children, who knows the best places to buy cool stickers for both girls and boys, and who, when the pattern of “map” and “chap” and “strap” and “wrap” finally starts to make sense to an eight-year-old, pops out with, “Hey, you’re hitting it today, buddy!”

There is cynicism, deep and real. We’ve earned it in daily life, we’ve got the stripes.

In the best places, let’s cross our fingers, we’re earning the hope too.

Leslie Scanlon of Louisville, Ky., is The Outlook’s national reporter.