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I was downtown the other day and approached by an Obama campaign volunteer. She smilingly asked me to vote for the Senator to bring hope and change to the country. “Hope for what, and change of what?” I asked.

Her response was forgettable. I mean that. I don’t remember it. At all, other than it was a bunch of words strung together that neither formed a complete thought nor answered my question. But I don’t blame her. Volunteers flagging down in-a-hurry pedestrians are seldom expected to have a policy debate on the sidewalk. I did, however, leave me wondering about hope. What it is. Why it exists. What role it plays in our lives.

My favorite take on hope is from Shawshank Redemption. Red, played by Morgan Freeman, counsels Andy, played by Tim Robbins, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Later in the movie, by means of a letter, Andy reminds Red, “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things.”

So what?

Andy – and Obama, I suppose – is right. Hope is a good thing. It’s necessary, especially when, as I wrote in December, you are betting on yourself and trying to live with more awareness and trying to create a deeper sense of fulfillment in life. Hope motivates us to keep going even when logic or reason tell us not to, or when doubts creep in when things do not go according to plan. It is almost like a flashlight given to us to navigate the unknown after listening to that quiet inner voice that nudges us with something is in need of realignment.

Back in March I received my first graduate school application response. It was from George Washington University and it was a rejection. I tried to take it in stride, though a panicked response quickly set in. My chest tightened, my pulse quickened, and I was slightly shorter of breath. It was the first time I had felt that severely stricken with the fear of “what now” since the early days of contemplating quitting my job and striking out on my own to find a better use of my talents. Even getting fired from the community organizing group was less terrifying because I had the comfort of knowing I no longer had the daily misery of working for a tyrant. My time in Jamaica appeared to put me on a smoother-though-still-not-linear path where things were falling into place with relative ease. This rejection letter was a reminder of how uncertain much of this experiment still is.

I tried to remind myself that it was only one of four applications. Strike one. That’s all. One of the others will work out. A week later, a second rejection letter arrived, this time from American University. Same reaction, only better because I knew how to handle it, but still worse because only half of my chances remained. In addition, American was higher on my list given some of the classes they offer around ethics and conflict. Still, I hope.

Strikes 1 and 2.

A few weeks later I received responses from both Hopkins and Georgetown. Both waitlisted me. So neither yes or no. And somehow, the lack of a firm “no” from both of them has me feeling more hopeful than when all four applications were out there. In some measure, they find my application appealing. There is something in there worth considering. And that triggers hope. Hope that this will work out. Hope that the next step falls into place. Hope that this gamble keeps paying off. Hope that I will find what I initially sought when I walked out of my old job. Recall I mentioned that the Hopkins program requires 100-level coursework in economics. I’m wrapping up those courses soon and will fire them off as quickly as possible. That I am doing well in both classes bolsters my hope even further. It tells me that maybe I can do this after all.

"I never said most of the things I said." - Yogi Berra (Photo: Wiki Commons)

It’s amazing how quickly we cling to hope when necessary. It can instantly transform a dire situation to a more bearable one, like flipping a light switch. As Yogi Berra put it, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And that’s enough to keep you swinging, I suppose. Still, I have zero control over the final decision of the two schools. I have no reason to expect they will accept me, but I believe – or at least hope - one of them will nonetheless.

Although hope is necessary, it alone is not sufficient. Hope is not a plan. If it is your plan, then all you really have is a wish. If hope initiates a plan and sustains it in hard times, what makes it real is the discipline to follow through. It doesn’t matter if it’s finding a different career, living a healthier lifestyle, or tackling life’s “To Do” list. In some ways, developing this discipline is the hardest of all steps. Indeed, all the hope in the world will not teach discipline. For that, you have to want something more than what you have to sacrifice to get it. That is a subject for another time.

But hope remains necessary. It answers the question, “Why do this?” It makes the implementation of the plan – the discipline – more bearable. Gives it meaning. Increases its impact when things work out, and softens the blow when they do not. So whatever change you are trying to effect in your life, examine why you are doing it. Ask yourself what your hope is, and how that hope will sustain you when things don’t’ go exactly according to plan.


Update: May 22, 2008: Both Georgetown and Johns Hopkins have accepted me into the graduate programs starting this Fall! And this acceptance is all the greater because I maintained hope. It ebbed and flowed but never truly vanished. Had I completely given up hope, I assume I’d feel ashamed that I did, and discouraged from trying again.

Next stop, Bologna Italy.

The Georgetown option is very appealing if not only for the chance to continue my education at a Jesuit institution. But, I’m choosing Johns Hopkins SAIS. The required economics angle makes it more of a challenge, and its option to spend the first year studying at its campus in Italy will provide a non-US based perspective on global subjects, which I want.

So there it is. The next step revealed itself. It is a step born from listening to that quiet inner voice, inspired after exploring an option I pushed to the back burner years ago, and shaped through persevering ups and downs.

I now have three months of tasks including paperwork, visas, packing up my life (again), course prep, etc. I suspect this blog – and the other one – will go quiet for a time. More to come.



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