My life is countercyclical. I’m told the 1990s were a time of oblivious optimism and celebration. If so, I had no part in that. I was a deeply wounded and disturbed young man, stumbling along deserted city streets, trying to make sense of it all.
Fast forward to 2022, and the tables have turned. Things are falling apart faster than the eye can see, yet I am happy and fulfilled. Trust is waning in our institutions, our past and future, even our neighbors. Yet here I am making friendships, forging bonds, extolling our common virtues and the (ever-lacking, always unfulfilled) promise of America. It may just be my turn to share what it’s like to keep up hope when hope itself seems lost.
I like my food spicy. But not too hot. Mild spice enhances the natural flavors and brings them to the foreground. Overdo it and heat overpowers flavor. If you put too little spice, of course, you get the opposite—a bland absence of taste.
I believe that’s what Jesus means when he exhorts us to be the salt of the earth. Bring out life’s flavors by the way you live. Taste it all, the sweet and the bitter, the good and the gory. If you become bland like the Pharisees, you miss the point of life—but the same is true when you overpower it with concupiscence. Salt is a greedy little substance: it sucks the living water right out of things. Taste life, but don’t stuff yourself with it. Take until you are filled and leave the rest.
I live by three different kinds of hope. The first we might call ultimate hope. This is the hope we are taught in religious faith: that all our sufferings will end eventually, that our tears will be wiped away and our weeping will be no more. Of course, this promise may come true only in the afterlife. Thus, to hold on to it, you must be comfortable with a considerable amount of uncertainty.
Since I have journeyed from wretch to healer in less than three decades, I can testify to the truth of penultimate hope. This is the hope that we may heal before our demise, that grace works in this life and not only in the next. It does, I proclaim, for it has healed me. And I see it work in so many things: in the passion of my students to help and do good; in small transcendences of partisan stupidity; in the simple gift of birds singing on a fresh summer morning.
But in this life, there are no guarantees. What is mended today may fall apart again tomorrow. In the realm where the morning grass withers before the setting of the sun, nothing is eternally secure.
Because this is so, I sometimes ask myself: what would happen if things began to fall apart for me? Would I still be going around trying to mend them? Or would I become aggrieved and bitter, and get sucked into the vortex of destruction?
God only knows. And because of that, I still hope.
This brings me to my final hope. I’m not sure if it should be called hope at all: for it is, truly, a hope-less hope, a gaze into the future that does not need the future to turn out a certain way. It is hope-less, mind you, not hopeless: it is devoid of material expectation, yet filled with grace and not despair. How can this be?
The answer is in the parable of the salt. Life itself may be unending, but in this life, all things must wane and wither. The point is not to hold on to them—not even to healing, not even to fulfillment—but to taste them. To truly bite into the fruit of life and let the sweet and bitter juice drip over you and stain you. Don’t overstuff yourself and throw it all up, but do not shy away from the mess either. Hope-less hope squints in the setting sun and knows it does not know what the new day will bring, or if there will be a new day at all. All it has is this day, and its hope is that if this day has been tasted, in the day to come this will have been enough.
Tobias A. Kroll, Ph.D., grew up in Germany and has been on a multi-faith journey all his life. Raised both Catholic and Protestant, he has explored atheism, 12-step spirituality, and Buddhism, and he has learned from Indigenous traditions and from Taoism, as well as from the Hindu religion of his wife. Now back in the Protestant faith of his baptism, he is a professor in the health sciences in Lubbock, TX where he teaches speech-language pathology and works on integrating spirituality into patient care. Tobias attends a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) and explores Protestant spirituality at https://medium.com/@tobias-a-kroll