“Just is” or “Justice” ?: Amanda Gorman and the tragedy of hope and history

Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration (January 2021).

Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to. 

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Optimism vs. Hope – and Other Differences that Matter

I remember reading a long time ago that there were fifty different words in Eskimo languages for snow. I tried to imagine how to tease out nuances in texture, timing or other qualities that would be of significance. But I realized that the words were linked to Inuit cultural experience, and I came up short.

This exercise came to mind recently, after someone asked me if I was optimistic about the resiliency of American democracy amidst the current tidal wave of polarization and disruption.  “No,” I replied, “but I am hopeful.” That set me to pondering the differences between pairs of related words. The distinctions I make are surely idiosyncratic as well as culturally bound, but some seem important.

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