I am the kind of person who sometimes derives hope from unusual things. As a lover of stories, I often will comment that a certain twist seemed rather “hopeful” to me, even if most other people simply cannot see it. Indeed, the Vulcanian raised eye-brow is the most frequent reaction to these epiphanies. I certainly do recognize more obvious forms of hope that manifest themselves in storylines and relish in the glory of them. But sometimes the more obscure forms are the more profound, uncovered under the shadow of stony hearts that turn out to be more human than we realized.
I remember coming to this conclusion during the all-time-famous “Rosebud” moment in Orson Welles’ ground-breaking classic Citizen Kane. As he lies dying, Kane whispers the name of the sled he was playing with just before he was disowned by his mother as a little boy. Technically, it was really more tragic than hopeful, showing the childhood lack of love that started Kane down his road of destruction. While each man is ultimately responsible for his own decisions, the landscape of the soul is complex and easily warped. Hence, the fact that he was thinking upon that simple sled at the moment of his death in some sense validated his deep-down-long-time-buried humanity. It was almost calling out to his former self…perhaps one might say in a form of prayer, or a psalm of subconscious pleading. It was a look back at the Kane who might have been if not for the sting of rejection that left him at the mercy of his own insecurities.
Another poignant moment of this type of “hope” is seen in the impressionistic historical fiction production Barry Lyndon, about a young Irishman who sacrifices everything in a vain effort to maintain a position in the 18th century English aristocracy. Although he causes catastrophe for everyone around him in his single-minded pursuit of becoming a “gentleman”, he comes to an important cross-roads when he is challenged to a duel by his long-time-mistreated step-son. A famous good marksman, Lyndon has the opportunity to kill the boy he has long detested after the younger contestant’s gun misfires and his step-father is awarded the first shot. Shuddering with terror, the boy vomits in the corner before courageously returning to his appointed place to await the shot. But Lyndon’s heart is suddenly softened, and in an iconic moment he turns his pistol down and fires into the ground. Subsequently, his step-son shoots him in the leg, and after it is amputated, he wastes away as a dissolute drunkard. But it is Lyndon’s own act of unexpected compassion that shows a spark of something worthwhile in the man we all thought beyond salvation.
In John Wayne’s Allegheny Uprising, the pompous and heavy-handed British officer Captain Swanson experiences a similar “moment of grace” which shows him to be a much more multi-faceted man than we might have originally thought. When his Fort is under siege by rebels for multiple days, he threatens any of his soldiers who fall asleep at their post with the lash or firing squad. Making his rounds he comes upon a young sentry who has drifted off and menacingly grabs him by the collar with his usual tough-as-nails persona. The terrified soldier blurts out an apology, but he and the audience presume he’s pretty much done for. However, unexpectedly, Swanson gazes at the sleep-deprived young man for a long moment, and a look of pity enters his eyes. He released him with a warning: “It’s alright, lad; just stay awake.” Even though his character remains “the baddie” for the rest of the film, this sign of consideration towards one of his own men makes him a much more sympathetic figure than he had been previously.
Another example takes place in an episode of the 1970’s western/martial arts series Kung Fu aptly entitled “The Gunman.” The hero Kwai Chang Caine encounters a gun-slinger who lives by the swiftness of his draw and the tally marks counting out the men he has killed. However, after the gunman saves Caine in an encounter, the Buddhist monk takes it upon himself to uncover the man’s latent humanity. With his usual ability to read the state of souls, Caine encourages the man to give up his destructive life and embrace his own ability to love. But the man does not have the strength to free himself from the cycle of violence, and finds himself drawn into a final showdown with a vengeful officer of the law. But all of Caine’s words are brought to bear in his mind in that instant, and the gun-slinger who never missed a shot is unable to pull the trigger. In a truly tragic outcome, he is immediately shot down in cold blood by the lawman. But Caine, observing with tears in his eyes, acknowledges that he finally understood what it meant to love before he died.
The crux of all these moments is the awakening of some form of empathy, either outwards in compassion towards others or inwards in a deeper awareness of self, even if it is only temporary, seemingly too late, or if the price is brutally high. Usually, it is a matter of both/and, as the self and the other are integrally bound up together. These moments reveal some chance of redemption or aspect of ‘redeemability’, regardless of whether full redemption ever takes place in their lives. They still prove that the characters are not really as inhuman as we may have been led to believe, and that all of us have a chance at any time to turn towards the light like flowers towards the sun. For even an insignificant span of time, we are reminded that all hope has not been lost.
The genuine transformation of characters, even in the face of their own death and material ruin, contain within them the germinating seed of hope itself. Even redemptions that fail to take place, as epitomized by Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still contain hope in that it was possible. Indeed, Frodo Baggins keeps himself going with the thought “I’ve got to believe that he can come back.” We must have faith that some greater good can come from even the existence of the possibility, just as it did in The Lord of the Rings, when Gollum proved to be inadvertently vital in saving the world, even though he could not be saved from himself.
While we must never fall into presumption, from an eternal perspective, we never know what moments of redemption may have the capacity bring about redemption in full. It may not happen in the time we think it should, but happen it may. It is not for us to judge the hearts of others; we leave that up to the Creator of all Hearts, who is outside of time and space and our own judgmental boxes. When our lives flash before us, those moments might yet provide us with the opportunity to choose the fullness of saving grace, if we make the decision to commit ourselves to their essence and embrace their life-giving power.
Here on earth, we have a sacred obligation, like Frodo with Gollum, to aid those staggering on unsure footing and do all in our power to guide them towards the right road. Regardless of the consequences and end results, it is our sworn duty in this life, for even the smallest act of mercy or kindness or love may have the power to save a soul, a reality highlighted in the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux who encouraged Christians to follow “The Little Way”, doing even the lowliest acts out of love and thereby transforming the world one increment at a time.
All this reminds me of a legend about a man living a life of great sin, dying in a wretched and dissolute condition. However, as his soul crosses between the worlds, he encounters a beautiful lady in raiment as bright as the snow. She is Hebrew, and she is with child. She tells him that once he did some act of kindness for her and her child, so she has come to save his soul. He does not remember what this kindness was; indeed, he does remember ever seeing the woman in his life. She tells him that it was when he gave a cup of cold water to a poor man. It was an act of heart-felt compassion, and therefore was a boon to her, as she was the Mother of All Mercies. She extends her hand to him, and he willingly takes it, for she is beautiful beyond all words or forms, and she leads him into the light.
Of course, the woman is usually taken to be Mary, believed by Christians to be the Mother of the Word of God made flesh and the very purest vessel connecting humanity to her Divine Son, Jesus Christ. At the same time, the lady can represent the Wisdom of God, often referred to in the feminine “Sophia”, pregnant with all gifts that bring forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit. She comes in confirmation of Christ’s own parable of the sheep and the goats, stating that whatever someone does for the least of their brothers and sisters they do for the great “I Am”, even if they didn’t know it at the time. That such little things can extend to us the hand of hope and a chance to change our lives for the better is a very deep consolation indeed. And to quote Arwen from Lord of the Rings, who resonated courage even as darkness enveloped the lives of those she cared about the most: “There is always hope.”
Finally, as Emily Dickinson beautifully put it, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without words that never stops at all.”