Beyond Hopeless

The news couldn’t be worse for the general.

After all, his opponent had the most professional army in the world. The troops in the area didn’t just outnumber him, they outnumbered the city he was defending. Well, supposed to be defending – that same enemy army had pretty much kicked him around at will, overwhelming him at every point, sending his own troops not just into retreat, but often outright flight.

Only some convenient fog and a masterful escape had kept them all alive this long. And if the enemy ever committed to a hard pursuit even that might not last. After all, no one had told George Washington that he was going to win in the end. And if they had, at that moment, he might not have believed them.

“I am worried to death,” Washington wrote to his brother, as his army was uprooted from New York and chased into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. “I think the game is pretty near up.”

This isn’t how we like to remember the American Revolution. Oh, sure, we take pride in having fought a giant. We may even remember images of Valley Forge, where the army starved and froze before coming out tougher than ever.

But we sit with the vantage point of centuries in our favor. We know we won. Of course we did. The British were fighting a different kind of war. They had an impossible situation in terms of logistics, communication, and coordination. And that was before French, Spanish, and Dutch allies turned it into a world war. The rebels had to win. Obviously.

Except it was anything but obvious at the time.

It never is, when you’re in the midst of the fight.

Washington wanted a clear-cut win on the battlefield. With rare exceptions, he wasn’t going to get it. His win had to be longer-term – to keep his army alive and together another day, another week, another year. When you can’t outfight your opponents, you have to outlast them.

But over time, outlasting becomes its own victory.

It’s a lesson I think most of us have had to learn. A lot of life’s problems don’t allow for a quick knockout punch, an easy resolution, and a fade to black with a wry quote on our lips. We get outmatched, even overwhelmed.

For Heather and me, it’s her medical situation, dealing with a laundry list of chronic illness – sometimes with Crohns, sometimes with multiple sclerosis, sometimes with the melodically-named but painfully-endured ankylosing spondylitis. It’s a situation that laughs at plans, where a day’s schedule may be completely rewritten because a condition decided to flare up.

For somebody else, it might be an impossible family situation, or a budget that’s circling the drain, or a change in the political winds that threatens fundamental needs for themselves or their loved ones. Everyone is fighting their own fight, and sometimes the fight can seem pretty darned hopeless.

But if we stay standing, if we stay in the fight, if we refuse to go down and go away, we can reach beyond hopeless. And then come out the other side.

Struggles are won by the side that gives up last.

Oh, it’ll be painful. It’ll be frustrating, even dispiriting. Washington himself famously shouted “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” when his troops refused to rally and stand. There are no guarantees.

But if we stand, if we last, if we persevere and continue – one day, down the road, we may look back and realize how much we’ve done. And how inevitable it now seems.

It’s a shift in perspective that can be pretty amazing.

Maybe even Revolutionary.


As I write this, a grand old man hovers at death’s door. By the time it appears in print, he may already be gone.

Godspeed, Nelson Mandela.

His is one of the amazing lives of the last century. Few men have made the transition from political prisoner to national leader; even fewer have done so without the intervention of civil war or other violence. To have done that and remain a respected, even beloved, figure years after leaving power – well, you get the idea.

But the end comes for all of us. Not always quickly or kindly. Though at least most of us don’t have the world’s press straining to be the first to announce our passing. An odd compliment, in a way.

Farewell, Mr. Mandela.

I can’t think of him without thinking of a moment in history. And I don’t just mean February 1990, the moment of his freedom from prison, the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.

That’s a key part of this. But to everyone who was alive then – do you remember?

Do you remember what a remarkable time in history that was?

Think back to 1989 and 1990.

These were the years the Wall came down. That the Soviet Union began to break apart, like a calving iceberg. That the Velvet Revolution came to Czechoslovakia, setting off dominoes across Eastern Europe – and not the sort of dominoes once anticipated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That even Beijing felt an attempt to “shake your windows and rattle your walls,” in the old words of Mr. Zimmerman.

Remember those days? When it seemed like the books were being rewritten every day, mostly for the better?

Heady times, indeed.

OK, I admit, putting it that way makes it sound like some kind of high school slide show, probably set to a rewritten version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” But looking back from now, when the headlines involve drones and wiretapping, wildfire and Middle Eastern war … well, it can make someone a little nostalgic.

But here’s the interesting thing about including Mandela in that parade of events. It gives a little perspective.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Years during which he had little reason to believe that South Africa was ever going to change. Years during which it seemed the world would continue on the same old paths in the same old way, for as long as anyone could foresee.

Then, all at once – transformation. Release.


No, the world’s problems didn’t end. We didn’t magically enter the promised land. But so much that no one had even dared promise came to be.

No, it didn’t just happen to happen. It took work and endurance and even suffering on the part of many, with no promise of success. And that may be the most hopeful part of all.

If they could dream then, we can dream now. If they could labor then, not even daring to speak the fear that it might all be in vain, we can labor now.

And what they achieved, we can achieve. However dark the times may seem.

So thank you, Mr. Mandela. Thank you for what you ended and what you began.  For not just outfighting injustice, but outlasting it.

Thank you and farewell.

May you rest in peace.

And may we not rest until peace is here.