A book about hope, in the hope of imparting more of it

The United States is having a crisis of hope, says author and activist Paul Loeb, and he wants to do something about it. After encountering high levels of despair around the country in the past few years, he has complied a book of essays meant to inspire people, particularly those working for social change.

"The Impossible Will Take a Little While: a Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear" is a collection of works by writers Mr. Loeb himself turns to when he needs a lift, and those suggested to him when he asked the public for ideas.

Writers included in the book range from playwright Tony Kushner and former Czech President Václav Havel to a Boeing worker from Seattle and a minister from Minnesota.

Loeb, an affiliate scholar at the Center for Ethical Leadership in Seattle, rushed to finish the book before the 2004 election, so that it might offer support to campaign workers making calls and ringing doorbells during a tight race.

"I wanted them to be able to pick up a story, and say, 'I'm just going to take a break for 15 minutes, read this story, and then I can ... go back out there again and keep on,' " he explains.

Hope is a topic Loeb takes on with some regularity, as he explores issues of citizen responsibility and empowerment. His previous books include "Hope in Hard Times" and "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time," which is included in courses at some colleges.

If "Soul of a Citizen" was intended to give people a push to get started on some worthy civic task, the goal of "The Impossible Will Take a Little While" is to give them hope to continue, he says.

He sees the essays as helping to alleviate the bleakness some might feel when thwarted in trying to do good. For instance, Havel defined hope eloquently in an essay from the mid-1980s.

"Hope is not prognostication," Havel wrote. "It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons."

"Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism," he continues. "It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

Elsewhere in the book, Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, a Christian ministry for social justice and peace, describes hope this way: "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change."

One of the points Loeb tries to illustrate in his essay choices is that change often happens when people help one another reach the ultimate goal. One man can't push a boulder up a mountain, but several, each shouldering the burden, can, he contends.

"If you look back on the long arc of history," he says, "you're going to be able to see how all these individual people's efforts mattered."

In an essay of his own, Loeb uses the example of Rosa Parks to highlight several ideas, including that citizen movements are often about common action, not just the actions of isolated individuals. He points out that Parks knew all about the protesting going on because she was an active member of a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for more than a decade before refusing to budge on the bus.

"[T]his tremendously consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all the humble and frustrating work that Parks and others undertook earlier on," he writes. "It also reminds us that Parks's initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the stand on the bus."

Loeb knows some readers may disagree with the views he's included. But he's confident that people will respond to the convictions expressed in the book: "They'll see it as about human aspirations, and the power to act."

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