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The virtue of hope: A fuel for America

It once was a building block for this country, and it can be again.

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As we turn the calendar's last page, tradition dictates that we look back at the year's major themes and events and preview "emerging trends" in the year ahead.

But what if we were to focus instead on polishing the lens through which we view the events slipping by us, and the unknown challenges that await? In 2012, our project could be to renew the centrality in our lives of the virtue of hope.

Hope is not just an unreflective, rosy optimism about the future. It's not a therapeutic "attitude adjustment" that a mental health professional can deliver. Hope is a virtue, a deeply engrained habit of mind that stands at the very foundation of a life well-lived.

We Americans are fortunate that hope is built into the architecture of the cultural world we inhabit. It's an element of the precious patrimony we received from Western Europe—the happy marriage of Athens and Jerusalem.

As inheritors of the Western cultural tradition, we Americans do not believe that the future is foreordained, or that human beings are the helpless playthings of the gods. We do not conceive of history as a giant wheel, condemning us to endlessly repeat the past. We have a different idea: that hope—and human resolve, ingenuity, self-discipline and self-sacrifice—can broaden and enrich our world, improving our lives and those of our children.

With hope as his companion, Western man invented extraordinary machines that lightened the dawn-to-dusk labors that human beings at other times and places have viewed as inevitable. He conquered diseases about which the rest of the world had thrown up its collective hands. He explored and explained our seemingly unfathomable universe.

Yet we Americans have taken the virtue of hope a step farther than our cultural progenitors did. Liberated from the class divisions of Western Europe and fired by a belief in the primacy of the individual, we have forged a nation that others still view as what historian Paul Johnson has called "the first, best hope for the human race."

It was hope of a unique kind that gave the Pilgrims the courage and vision to embark on the Mayflower to found a "city on a hill." It was hope that inspired and sustained our founding fathers in their quest to establish a political system built on the glorious idea that man is free, and capable of governing himself.

It was hope that fired the pioneers as they journeyed west in their covered wagons, and that brought our nation through a great and terrible Civil War. Those who suffered through that conflict believed that, no matter how dark the present, America's capacity to meet every challenge would prevail in the end. It was hope that inspired the immigrants—the "tired and poor" who have streamed to these shores—to take the leap of faith that made their journey possible.

Hope is not just "long ago and far away." It is a virtue for our own day. Only a steadfast hope, for example, backed by strength and resolve, could have dreamed that the wall of communism's totalitarian rule—which once stretched across Europe and beyond—would fall in our lifetime.

To be sure, hope faces great obstacles today. As the 21st century enters its second decade, we are inundated with a steady, often debilitating hail of information that generally emphasizes crisis and decline. The 24-hour news cycle can make it hard to see beyond the next week, let alone to the horizon where hope lives.

Hope can also be the tool of artful politicians and "special interests," who seek to convince us that their own cause du jour is synonymous with hope. In fact, hope has little to do with the daily political ebb and flow. It is a steady compass, capable of guiding us through tempests much more threatening than the din generated by an election year.

Hope yearns for something much broader and deeper—the good of our children and grandchildren. It inspires a constant quest to revitalize our foundation as a free people, and to renew what is good and noble in ourselves and our fellow citizens, despite changes in the political winds. Hope reminds us that in human lives, forgiveness and transformation are always possible.

Perhaps, in 2012, our goal should be to liberate ourselves from a one-dimensional focus on daily events, from dark forebodings about what's around the corner, and from the political theater that accompanies these things. The wise words of the poet Carl Sandburg can light our way:

"Always the path of American destiny has been into the unknown. Always there arose enough of reserves of strength, balances of sanity, portions of wisdom to carry the nation through to a fresh start with ever-renewing vitality."

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at Center of the American Experiment.

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