Remembering two voices of hope

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
October 1st, 2013

Confronted by the many faces of depression and despair that we see in our offices, we listen and speak, choosing our silences as carefully as we choose our words, never forgetting the power of the right word at the right time. This year on the last three days of August, as we searched for words of hope to offer our patients, the world took notice of hope filled words of two of our greatest inspirational leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Seamus Heaney.

August 28th marked the 50th anniversary of Reverend King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to a crowd of more than 250,000 civil rights supporters. By now, the speech has become so much a part of the American experience that it would be hard to find anyone in our country who has not seen, read or heard about the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. King’s compelling rhetoric of hope and non-violent action.

Think of the event and you can see Dr. King slicing the air to emphasize the repeated refrain of his dreams of equality for all in a nation that he charged with defaulting on the “promissory note” of freedom and equal opportunity. You can hear the cadence of his voice as he invokes the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Constitution, placing them squarely in the context of the Bible’s call for racial justice as a manifestation of God’s will.

The speech, regarded as one of the finest in the history of American oratory, was actually a combination of prepared text and a more spontaneous response to the mood of the crowd. Its most famous passage in which Dr. King describes his dreams of equality is said to have come in response to the prompting of Mahalia Jackson who called out, “Tell them about the dream.” This combination of preparation and spontaneity, the sensitivity to the mood of his listeners and the message of hope that the Reverend King delivered resonates with the work of the psychologist.

Two days after the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, on August 30, 2013, the world lost one of its most eloquent voices of hope and reconciliation with the death of the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney in Dublin. Heaney had strong ties to New England, serving as a professor at Harvard from 1981 to 1997 and as a Poet in Residence from 1988 to 2006. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 and it is said that his working class cronies in Cambridge greeted the news by teasing him with the name, “famous Seamus.”

Like Martin Luther King Jr. before him and so many other inspirational leaders, Heaney carried the tensions of contradictory traditions, social classes and political forces and turned them into a wellspring of creative energy. He was a Catholic born and raised in Protestant Northern Ireland, a scholar from a family of farmers and was equally at home in the company of kings and blue collar workers. In his poem, “Digging,” Heaney wrote of watching from an upstairs window as his father and grandfather dug peat on the family farm. In a masterful expression of self-reflection, he wrote: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.”

Heaney spent his entire career digging with that pen and he unearthed, polished and gave to the world a profound understanding and eloquent expression of the power of hope. In his poem, “Doubletake,” he wrote, “So hope for a great sea-change/on the far side of revenge./Believe that a further shore/is reachable from here./Believe in miracles/and cures and healing wells.”

What miracles, we may ask, can lift the veil of despair from the person who tells us he has no hope because the entire meaning of his life was tied to a child, a spouse or another loved one whose passing left him bereaved and abandoned? We cannot prescribe hope like a pill that will restore a patient’s confidence that a longed for event will come to pass but we might be able to nourish the idea of hope in something. “Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed,” Heaney wrote, “hope has to be maintained.”

“Even if the last move did not succeed,” he reminded us, “the inner command says move again.”

So we do move again and strive to maintain hope the way the followers of Dr. King worked to turn his dream into reality and the way the contending factions of Heaney’s beloved Ireland made “hope and history rhyme.” In the last three days of August, while the world marked the achievements of these two great men, in the hospital we did what we always do. We offered our presence, empathy, information, carefully chosen words and one thing more. We offered the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Seamus Heaney and the testament of their lives to the power of hope.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

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