How to be hopeful this Christmas

Although the days are dark and news is bleak, it’s important to leave room for happiness

December 24, 2023
Admiral Jim Stockdale never lost hope as a prisoner of war. Image: U.S. Navy File Photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Admiral Jim Stockdale never lost hope as a prisoner of war. Image: US Navy File Photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“’Tis the year’s midnight”, wrote John Donne in his melancholy poem “A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day”. His lover is dead and “The world’s whole sap is sunk.”

 Calendars change over time, and 13th December—St Lucy’s Day—is no longer quite the shortest. But you get the point. It is dark, and getting darker, in the bleak midwinter. Do you even dare to turn on the news at the moment? And if you do, how long can you bear to watch?

Proximity bias and the grammar of news reporting could mean that we fail to recognise some happier developments which don’t necessarily make it into the bulletins. Harvard’s Steven Pinker has argued in a series of recent books—The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Enlightenment Now (2018) and Rationality (2021)—that human beings are in fact making great progress, against disease and poverty, for example, and that even violence is in decline in most societies. He has the data to prove his points. And then you go back online or turn on the news and wonder if there really are any grounds for optimism or hope. 

Perhaps it would help to make a distinction between optimism and hope. The management writer Jim Collins first described what he calls the “Stockdale Paradox” over 20 years ago in his best-selling book Good to Great. Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam between 1965 and 1973, held in the “Hanoi Hilton” and tortured on many occasions.

He never lost hope. As he told Collins: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but that also I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

The fellow prisoners who suffered most, and who did not make it out, were the optimists. As Stockdale explained: “They were the ones who said: ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say: ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

It is this contrast between hope and optimism, and the paradoxical discipline of maintaining hope even while the facts are grim, which inspired Collins to come up with this label of the Stockdale Paradox. As the late admiral told him: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This is a tough-minded approach. But we should also recognise the needs and impulses of the human heart if we are to keep hope alive. In her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” (later set to music by Gustav Holst to create a popular Christmas carol), Christina Rossetti imagined the scene of the Nativity and what contribution she would have been able to make:

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what can I give Him: give my heart.”

Another resilient merchant of hope was Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and later president of Israel. He was famously dismissive of the futility of pessimism, regarding it as uncreative and a waste of emotional energy. I remember hearing him speak once at an event in Tel Aviv about 15 years ago. He asked the audience a rhetorical question: “Should I live in fear or should I live in hope?”. And then he answered his own question: “I choose to live in hope.” His hope would have been tested by current events, but I expect it would have survived even the current horrors. The Middle East needs more leaders with that sort of vision right now.

Maybe pessimism is an indulgence. I have always liked the joke that says the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist doesn’t know all the facts. But we mustn’t—can’t—give in to despair.

Tentatively peering out into the future, we are a bit like the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, fearing the worst while out on a walk on one of the last days of the year in 1900, and then hearing a bird sing out, beautifully. The poem he wrote about this moment, “The Darkling Thrush”, ends like this:

“So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.”