As we marked the start of Advent earlier this month in chapel, our Chaplain, Revd. Maloney, threaded the message of hope through the service and quoted Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, who has lived through one of the darkest times of the last 50 years, who wrote “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
With the festivities of the Christmas season approaching, I wanted to take time to consider the importance of using Advent as a period of reflection and to think about hope and the astounding strength of the human spirit. Through my time as a teacher working in schools, I have witnessed the incredible capacity for pupils and staff to come through the most extraordinarily difficult and challenging circumstances and not just survive but ultimately thrive, despite the pain of particular events never leaving them. I wonder how many of us have heard of something happening to someone and have thought ‘I just wouldn't be able to cope with that.’
In the news we hear of dramatic examples of humans retaining hope in almost impossible seeming circumstances. Last year, the world watched as the story of the Thai boys’ football team trapped in an underground cave system unfolded. They were stuck about 4km into the cave system on a ledge with a limited pocket of air, in the pitch black. Without a torch they could see absolutely nothing, it was cold, they had no food and no way of knowing, for the first week, whether anyone even knew they were there. But they have talked about the fact that their coach said only positive things to them, that he taught them to meditate so that they used less of the precious oxygen supply and they retained hope that they would somehow be rescued. Outside the cave system, there were further examples of hope as people gathered, brought in specialist divers and began to explore the cave system in the hope that somehow the boys were still alive, despite the odds looking increasingly unlikely. Thank goodness they did retain hope or that incredible rescue attempt and the survival of the whole team and their coach would never have happened.
There are many other accounts where people’s hope and spirit seem to have survived against the odds. Most people have read, or at least heard of, Anne Frank’s diary. Anne and her family hid from the Nazis in an attic room for two years before being discovered and being sent to a concentration camp. Although there is no doubt from her diary entries that she suffered moments of despair, her words also show that she retained the ability to move beyond these feelings to ones of hope. “It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death," she wrote on 15 July 1944. "I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more."
My thoughts have moved far from the usual message of festive optimism but what I want our pupils, and all of us, to remember is that to try and retain hope in the darkest of hours is essential and, as our Chaplain said in his sermon, “Hope is a part of the human condition, but it has to be believed in, it is a way of seeing which transforms not only the future, but the present too.” When you are up against it, you will discover the most incredible strength and ability to survive locked inside you. There is a fantastic quote, attributed to AA Milne but that was actually a Disney scriptwriter taking something written in the language of a child by AA Milne and making it absolutely explicit, and it is this: “Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem.”