In times of gloom: Hope and human resilience

Let's speak truth to the powerful while offering hope to the less powerful

DR WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

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Many an evening meal today may be made much less palatable by dire news of war and other disasters, as horrendous pictures of starving, skeletal children with limbs amputated and bodies in blood-stained burial cloths bombard our minds since we addictively tinkle with various IT devices. Wars in Gaza and Ukraine rage on for months with no end in sight, wreaking unspeakable suffering and reminding me so very often of the phrase “The Horror, the Horror”, uttered by Joseph Conrad’s near mad protagonist Kurtz as he stares into the dark abyss of the human heart.

Less pictorially vivid, yet no less dreadful, are reports of corruption and insatiable human greed in the halls of political, corporate and financial power. Add to this recent natural disasters birthed by climate change, which is linked to Man’s greed as he exploits nature relentlessly and we can understand why some people rant and rave almost daily. Yet in the midst of doom and gloom, I look for, as well as value significant, small “illuminations”. Perhaps at 76, I cannot afford to lose spiritual and mental strength even if I cannot stop physical weakness of limbs and body. Hence Hope, however faint its notes, is longed for, with ears straining to hear that melody which has sustained humankind through centuries of trials and tribulations.

Turning to Emily Dickinson’s timeless poem, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers, one finds illuminating insights, words that resonate deeply in our hours of quiet reflection, encouraging us to meditate on resilience. As is common with Dickinson, her lines are short and the entire poem rests on her brilliant use of a common image, which she succinctly yet intriguingly manipulates to give the reader fresh insights. A bird, after all, is a common image often associated with Hope and Joy, as so many greeting cards in any shopping mall bookshop would show.

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Emily’s ‘bird’ is not a cliched image though, and we note her use of the word “thing” in the first line. Her bird is a “thing” as yet unnamed because it is both a fresh, luminescent object and a timeless symbol. It is not simply your garden variety bluebird of happiness and yet it carries customary values of hope and courage. This layered depth draws us in as we attentively examine her lines.

Dickinson’s bird of hope has its abode in our souls and that is why it is perched so precariously. This bird is always under threat of being dislodged by despair, by promises unfulfilled or principles undermined. We too lose hope quickly and descend into cynicism. Daily, as political-economic-social beings so desperately embedded in material needs, we have wandered too far from the domain of the soul, vacating that space where hope still sings its soft melody. We cannot even hear the notes, so how can we hear the words? – hence Dickinson’s line on her bird singing “the tune without the words”. Her bird is still with us and has asked nothing of us, not even “a crumb”, but do we sense its presence?

Yet, one has the right to ask: is this poem too romantic, too idealistic? Do not people have a right to despair when things are horrendous? Would it not be mere hypocrisy to be cheery? Dickinson is never a romantic escapist. A careful reading of her lines reveals her courageous awareness of human suffering, of dire disasters and strange maladies when she says we face gales, we face storms, we may even be aliens in the coldest land and wanderers on “the strangest Sea”. Ask the Gazans trying to find even one spot to house their families or the Ukrainians in bombed out homes or the North Africans crossing stormy seas to find a new home and these Dickinson lines hit home.

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Paradoxically, it is “in the Gale” that the sweetest notes are heard because then we need the song most. To retain Hope is never to be merely facile, sentimental or shallow. It is to retain the WILL to live on in the midst of mountains of rubble and the stench of unburied bodies and mass graves uncovered. It is to retain human kindness in a bowl of lentil soup shared with friends even though it means one has less for one’s family. It is harnessing dignity even in the blitz of dehumanising images, which turns one into a subhuman species.

To retain humanity in the face of the enemy’s brutality, one must have the mysterious, miraculous ability to hope. And this is what I find in the humanising poem Revenge by the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, which I am translating into Malay. In this compelling poem, Taha Muhammad sees the enemy who has razed his home, displaced his loved ones as a human being with father, mother, siblings, kin – and in this compassionate mirroring sees his own humanity. There is no sentimental excuse for the enemy’s inhuman cruelty, which Taha Muhammad records graphically. But there is a sliver of hope which may birth peace.

Often when I am enjoying my morning coffee or biting into a croissant or enjoying spicy beef curry rice at a cafe nearby, a certain twinge of guilt would assail me as I reflect on how often, how easily some middle-class folk grumble and lament. Nothing wrong with that if the issue merits highlighting and if the powers that be have reneged on promises or are corrupt. Why that twinge of guilt then? Because I am concerned about tone, about how words, if uttered or written in anger, destroy hope, upset a balanced view and dismiss nuances. So easy for me to vent and rage while I have a platter of goodies in front of me on the table, a roof to return to which I own after that feast. But what of the cleaners at the cafe, the servers or the parking attendants so kindly helping me, an OKU [a person with disability] out of my car? I try then to reflect on some positive vibes to offer them for whom getting up to face the workday requires tremendous resilience.

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To speak truth to power is what everyone should do, and those of us more fortunate to be literate do have a responsibility to do so, not because we are more intelligent (remember how Fanon reminds us that the rakyat, the people, often exceed all of us in their survival strategies) but because it is a moral call. Let us use words and tone carefully, let us reflect on Dickinson’s poem in which that frail bird still sings its gentle song, flying even on injured wings amidst the storm, and let us offer a song not of sentimental escapism but of tenacity, courage and determination. In so doing, we speak truth to the powerful while offering hope to the less powerful.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Wong Soak Koon
Dr Wong Soak Koon, an independent researcher, is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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Mano Maniam
Mano Maniam
28 May 2024 5.29pm

Wonderfully said! And it said it all!!