Lost Causes

It’s difficult to think productively about the future when the world seems pitted against your very well-being and existence. That is how many of my students are feeling these days.

Obj. No. L.3.2010 Henry Mosler (American, 1841-1920) The Lost Cause, 1868 Oil on canvas 36"H x 48"W 91.44 cm x 121.92 cm Note: signed and dated lower right, Henry Mosler. / 1868. Image must be credited with the following collection and photo credit lines: Lent by the Johnson Collection. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Photo: Travis Fullerton© Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Henry Mosler (American, 1841-1920), The Lost Cause, 1868. Lent by the Johnson Collection. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.  Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Their hopelessness is earned, their despondency legitimate. It is not born of fragility or a lack of resiliency, as some pundits of higher education often want to suggest. My otherwise hard-working and motivated students are demoralized and exhausted.

And so are most of my colleagues at the small college where I teach — as are most of my friends who teach, in one capacity or another, spread all over the country. And so am I. Many of us trying to understand our own devotion to what seems, at least at the moment, to be a lost cause.

I have previously written about Josiah Royce’s insights into the nature of loyalty as a helpful resource for thinking about vocation. But what does the “loyal agent” do when everything seems lost?

Josiah Royce (1855-1916). Photograph dated 1910; artist unknown.

Here, too, Royce has something to teach us, when he directs our attention to the nature of a “lost cause.” “Loyalty to lost causes,” Royce states in Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), is “one of the most potent influences of human history.”  He goes on to describe how even when a cause seems lost “in the visible world . . . it survives in the hearts of its faithful followers, [and] one sees more clearly than ever that its appeal is no longer to be fully met by any possible present deed.” Visions of the way the world could be serve as galvanizing ideals.

But this is a two-step process, as Royce astutely observes. Sorrow “pierces the heart” of those who are loyal in the face of the seemingly lost cause; a heavy blanket of grief shrouds them.

News From Sebastapol. Charles West Cope (1811-1896). Oil On Canvas, 1875.
News From Sebastapol. Charles West Cope (1811-1896). Oil On Canvas, 1875.

Yet, for the loyal agent, grief is a “comrade”: “loyalty, always strenuous and active . . . devotes itself to resolving upon what shall be. Grief it therefore transforms into a stimulating sense of need. If we have lost, then let us find.” The vision of the cause can deliver a loyal person through the dark days.

This is possible, Royce notes further, because of a second “comrade.” Imagination, the capacity of the loyal to generate new, creative visions of the cause, propels loyal agents forward. Such imagination furnishes a new, higher vision, one “that can be translated into deeds.” Loyalty to a cause is inherently and incessantly active. It never supplies permission to retreat from the world.

Doing the work of vocational discernment may seem impossible, even superfluous in the face of exhaustion and setback. We simply don’t have the emotional and imaginative resources to do anything beyond the day-to-day work of keeping our students from becoming derailed at this point in the semester. The challenge at these moments, taking a cue from Royce, is to help deliver our students from the first stage and into the second stage, from grief to imagination.

By Snehil Sakhare [CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By Snehil Sakhare [CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Here are some still tentative thoughts about how we undertake that subtle challenge:

First, it requires us to listen all the more attentively. How do they articulate their fears or anxieties at these dark moments? Like all grief, it cannot be rushed. To demand that someone relinquish one’s fear does a harmful disservice. We have to create spaces for them to name their fears, to rant, to cry. Or, to sit silently with them, our presence as a form of witness.

Second, and cautiously, we begin to remind them of their strengths, of what they know to be true. What hasn’t changed, even when all seems lost? What are those even more fundamental commitments and values? Why are they here? Where are they headed?

Then, brass tacks. What needs to be done, now? What will they do tonight, tomorrow, next week? What are their resources? Not just their own strengths, gifts and talents but their friendships and familial connections, their other networks of belonging.

What needs to be done, now?

The immediate and pragmatic can then be enhanced with some gentle reflection. What new things are they learning about themselves? About their most deeply held commitments? About what is true? What, finally, is being revealed about their faith?

At this time of the year in particular — when we find it harder and harder to find enough light — the work of vocational discernment turns out to be more important than ever.

Quotations from Josiah Royce, Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), reprinted with a new Introduction by John J. McDermott (Nashville: Vanderbilty University Press, 1995), pp. 130–34.

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

4 thoughts on “Lost Causes”

  1. I should have found a way to acknowledge the historical connections to the notion of the “Lost Cause” – it does raise complicated issues about the problems with loyalty to a pernicious cause. Royce tried to explore the power of loyalty (as a way of binding people together and giving life meaning) to any cause, good or bad. But then he went on to talk about the problem with causes that disrupt the capacity for others to express their loyalty, which then aren’t sustaining in the same way. I’ll have to mull on this in order to formulate a better answer to the good question you pose. Thank you for the comment!

  2. I love the empathy you show for yourself, your faculty friends spread across the country, and for your students, Hannah. The role of imagination in stirring the embers of the lost cause is especially important to believe in right now. And to encourage in students. All the questions of vocational discernment become alive in moments like these. We are feeling keenly the second part of Frederick Buechner’s famous definition: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It may be hard to feel joy right now, but the world’s needs seem clear, though sometimes overwhelming in their magnitude.

    The phrase the “Lost Cause” resonates strongly with losers of any battle, and has had a very particular history in the American South after the Civil War. http://www.essaysinhistory.com/articles/2011/6 In fact, there were some who see the recent election as evidence of the old anthem “The South Shall Rise Again.”

    How do we take advantage of this potential Phoenix moment without reifying an endless cycle of debate or even worse, an endless cycle of violence? Wish I knew the answer myself. Interested in yours.

  3. Great post, Hannah… Very timely. And very important to keep in mind at the end of another long, grueling semester! Thanks!

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