Chaplains’ Corner

Valerie Bailey

 During this past Thanksgiving, I spent time at a friend’s house, and one of the guests for one of these large Thanksgiving parties fancied himself to be a cynic. Very nice person, but don’t get him started on all of the woes of the world. This guest gave out a long monologue on the problems of the world to anyone who would listen. And believe me, there was plenty to cry about the state of the world: random shootings of schools and clinics, climate change, religious and political tensions and strife. The guest was clearly upset by these events, and when he took a breath between his list of the latest apocalypses, he said, “This is all necessary, because we need change and change only comes with chaos and apocalypse.’’ 

That got my attention. I remember for years I would be the herald of the apocalypse, giving my list of disasters in the world, showing off my knowledge of popular culture and current news events. But two years ago, I spent a lot of time looking at the period known as the Dark Ages (a questionable designation) and believe me, there have been worse times in history than today. But in my reading of the Dark Ages and the Reformation, I found something very interesting about chaos and catastrophe that led me to disagree with the guest. 

As I read history, the significant changes have actually come not from disaster and chaos but from reform movements that come in the calm after the chaos. Yes, apocalypses may bring about change, but I was surprised to see how much history is actually made by optimists. A pessimist looks at difficult times and says the end is near. An optimist looks at difficult times, and after finding a place of calm and stability in which to hide from the storm, the optimist picks up the pieces and builds something new from the debris and ashes. So, one person’s apocalypse can be another person’s reformation. And what makes the difference between the two? Hope. 

This week, many Christians are beginning the observance of Lent — a 40-day period of fasts, spiritual practices and reflection on the teachings of Christ. I am not good at fasts from chocolate, although meaningful eating and avoiding waste is something I will consider. This year, I am wondering if it possible to pick up the practice of joy and hope. What would that look like? I do lean toward pragmatism and cynicism, but this year, I may try hope and joy. I was inspired to do this after listening to a segment of This American Life

This episode featured a little boy who was so happy to ride the school bus for the first time. His joy was infectious. The show, in its wisdom, did not even try to explain why this little boy was so happy. His joy was not rational or reasonable. A cynic may say that his joy will end after five years of riding the bus. But his joy falls in the category of that which cannot be explained. I hope that there are things that can bring me that sort of joy… though it will not be a ride on a school bus. 

There is a fine line between hope and delusion. However, joy is that space that is just wonderful and unexplainable. Sometimes, too often, my hope crosses over into delusion and is shattered by reality. But joy? I don’t have to explain enjoying something that leaves only one mark — a happy memory. But sometimes I think joy can also bring about as much change as an apocalypse. I remember being at the Women’s March in 2017. The time after the election was so sad and apocalyptic. I managed to get a ticket for a bus headed to the march. What I will always remember was the joy of the beginning of that bus ride when everyone was sharing pictures on their phones of Facebook feeds from all around the world. It was the beginning of positive change. For the first time in weeks, there was hope. The global outrage had several moments of unexplainable joy — being together with people who were paying attention to our difficult world situation. Those movements gave me such hope — they are the happy memories I revisit after reading the morning news. Why does being on a bus with angry people reading global Facebook feeds as we converge into a crowd of millions give me such joy? I don’t know. Maybe that kid had a point. 

Reverend Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College.