ESSAY

Week 3

When Hope is Hard to Find

By Monica Dobbins

How can we find hope in circumstances such as these we live in today? Would it help to ask what it is we are even looking for? 

If hope is a thing, what is it? Is it like the family Bible or the inherited china dishes, beautiful to look at but never used? Is it wrapped up and locked down, protected like Fort Knox, the key shoved deep in our pockets? Has it been overused and beaten up, thrown out back to rust and decay? Or worse, a myth, a dream, a thing forgotten or abandoned, a wisp of a memory that escapes our grasping fingers and blows away?

We humans, we hunter-gatherer creatures with our acquisitive nature, are always searching for a thing to hold onto. Yet I have learned that we feel less hopeful if we are uncertain of what to do next; and by contrast, we often feel a little more hopeful if we can think of something to do to help. So what will happen if we let go of hope as a thing to find, acquire, or achieve, and instead consider hope as a way of living? What if hope is not, as Dickinson suggested, a thing that perches in the heart, but is instead the act of flight itself?

As a lifelong music lover and former professional musician, I have a fondness for Russian composers, who have known something about hope and despair. My favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, wrote his 7th symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, for the Soviet people while Leningrad was under siege during the second World War. It is a relentlessly desperate piece of work, yet the story behind it is one of unshakeable hope.

Leningrad of the early 20th century was a jewel in the Russian crown, a thriving, trendy city full of artists, writers, and thinkers. Dmitri Shostakovich was one of these artists, already a well-known Russian celebrity, with a doting wife and two adorable children and a comfortable teaching position. He was a musician with an anti-authoritarian streak, yet his political grumbling had been tolerated by the Soviet regime in favor of his formidable talent.

In 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa. He had managed to convince Joseph Stalin that they were on the same side, and Stalin had cooperated with the invasion of his own country by selling Germany munitions and supplies and by allowing the Germans to conduct reconnaissance and build up troops in Soviet-occupied territory. The invasion was swift and merciless; twelve hundred Soviet aircraft were destroyed in the first few hours of the operation.

The response in Leningrad, the city of artists and thinkers, was overwhelming. Biographer M.T. Anderson says, “Leningraders were so intent on responding to the Nazi threat that on the first day of the assault, a hundred thousand of them volunteered to take up arms.” Shostakovich was one of these volunteers, but he was turned away at the recruiting office because of his poor eyesight. In the following days of the invasion, the teachers at the Conservatory would instead be enlisted to dig trenches; Shostakovich was a terrible trench digger, as were most of the music teachers, who took frequent breaks to read a few pages of a book or pound out a few notes on a piano.

Over the next two years, the invasion would become a terrible siege, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history. For years, Stalin had overseen a regime in which dissent had been rewarded with disappearances and execution, even for the most trivial of offenses; it was in this political climate that the city managers of Leningrad, afraid to seem weak or underprepared, actually refused relief shipments of food. To make matters worse, the managers stockpiled all of Leningrad’s emergency stores in one warehouse; the warehouse was destroyed in a single Nazi air raid, leaving the city of three million to starve.

Shostakovich evacuated his family, but refused to leave himself. Consumed with compassion and solidarity, he stayed in the starving city with his comrades, and began work on the Seventh Symphony. Its famous invasion theme, styled to sound at first like annoying toy drums that gradually beat louder and louder until they overwhelm the listener with terror, gives way to a triumphant chorus. It was a rare message of hope and solidarity for the Russian people.

The most compelling performance of the 7th was given by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in August 1942, just a few months after its world premiere. Though the symphony had been scored for over 100 musicians, only 15 of the Leningrad Orchestra remained; the rest had died, or been sent off to fight. "My God, how thin many of them were," one of the organizers of the performance remembered. "How those people livened up when we started to ferret them out of their dark apartments. We were moved to tears when they brought out their concert clothes, their violins and cellos and flutes, and rehearsals began under the icy canopy of the studio."

Shostakovich was a world class composer, but when people are facing the greatest imaginable evil, who needs music? Yet with this work of art, Shostakovich had renewed the Leningraders’ will to live.  This composer could be nothing other than what he already was, and so he created hope out of what he had been given. Had he dug a thousand practical and necessary trenches, he could not have done half of what he did with his true gift, the magic of his music and its singular message for the survival of the human heart.

No one person can save the world all by themselves. The sooner we come to terms with that, the better. And yet, I believe that the world needs more compassionate, selfless ordinary people – nurses, clerks, mechanics, scientists, insurance adjusters – more teachers, more artists, and more trench diggers who find ways to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. May we be blessed with the wisdom to discern our gifts, and the courage to use them to create hope out of what we have been given.