‘Be realistic, think the impossible’ – Joke J. Hermsen

‘Be realistic, think the impossible’ – Joke J. Hermsen

‘Be realistic, think the impossible’


Thomas More, Island of utopia, from Libellus veer aureus ned minus salutaris quam festivus de optima reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia, Louvain, 1516 [Wormsley Library, Oxford]


‘Be realistic, think the impossible’

After a long period of waiting, worrying and staying at home, the time has arrived to prepare our coming back to the public world of schools, offices, restaurants and public services. But how will we make our rentree back into society? Do we pick up the thread and move on with our lives as if nothing has happened? Or did the lockdown period inspire us to reflect upon the world and made us aware of the necessity for change, in order to save our planet for future generations?

The Covid19 crisis has made many of us more conscious of the things that went wrong during the last decades of Western neo-liberal policies : economic inequalities, climate change, lack of solidarity, failing of our public services, social injustice, to name just a few. Many of us will probably hope for a better, more sustainable and more just world. The question therefore is how we will be able to change these wrongdoings and realize a better world, without falling back into the patterns of irresponsible exploitation, depletion of sources and economic profitability for just a few.

Philosophers of different traditions have demonstrated that one of the conditions for change is the power of hope. Before we can take any initiative for change we first have to ‘learn to hope again’, as the Jewish philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) once stated in the introduction of his famous book On the Principle of Hope. The first sentences of this book could have been written recently in stead of seventy years ago:

‘Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we waiting for? Many of us feel confused. The ground shakes under their feet, they do not know why and with what. (…) It is all a question of learning to hope again. Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope makes people broader instead of confining them. ‘

Learning to hope again means first of all overcoming our feelings of powerlessness, frustration and fear. This difficult task can only be done thanks to our social abilities to connect with others and our creative abilities to think in an imaginative way. Learning to hope again means trying to imagine the world as it does not yet exists. It is the exploring and developing of utopian views of a more sustainable and just world, in the original Greek meaning of the word outopos: a non existing but better place. Hopeful, utopian views and ideas help us not only to criticize the present status quo of Western society and find out it shortcomings, but also to imagine a world with less destruction of the biosphere and less social-economic injustices.

We have to ‘be realistic and think the impossible’, as Ernst Bloch once wrote. This is just another definition of hope. Thinking the impossible – or the not yet realized – is not only a condition for change, but it also justifies our human nature. As human beings we are not completed and fixed ‘things’, but we are of a ‘becoming’ nature. Because of our abilities to speak, think and create we are ‘a substrate of possibilities’. We can imagine what we, and the world, could be and it is precisely this imagination which gives us hope.

As human beings we are anchored in time; we are able to reflect upon the past, and we are able to dream about the future. The future is not yet known to us; it is still a pure possibility. Therefore Bloch can write: ‘time is hope’. Only if we take our ‘being in time’ and our ability to hope and imagine seriously, we will be able to become truthful to our own humanity.

Before we make our rentrée back into the world, we have to be very conscious of this fundament of hope which lies under every human existence. This is not the time for cynicism nor for too much skepticism or irony. They surely will show up later, and make us a good comedy, but for now, we first have to learn to hope again, in order to be able to change.

We also have to become more aware of our own being in time. We have lived in Western capitalist society under a lot of time pressure; during the last century time has become more and more an economic measure only. Since we are paid according to the hours we work, time has become money. Profits are made if the same job is done in less hours; time has become a scarcity product and a rushing dynamics: it has made us often chronically tired and stressed. This fatigue is not good for us. It not only makes us sick or depressed, it also threatens our ability to imagine and to hope.

When time turned into money it became almost exclusively linked to the verb ‘to have’; it no longer belonged to us nor to the verb ‘to be’, as in ‘being in time’. This reduction of time to the chronological, economic model, has not only alienated us from our selves, but also from our work, from others and from the world, as Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt have both pointed out. We have to understand that we do not only ‘have’ and measure time, but that we also ‘are’ and experience time. The economic clock time is just an abstract and artificial perspective on time, which under the laws of capitalism has overshadowed almost any other experience of time.

If time is hope, as Ernst Bloch puts it, it can only spring from our being in time and not from the alienating principals of economic time. We have to bring our attention back to this inner experience of time, which presents itself while we are resting, thinking, daydreaming, meditating, walking, reading or painting. Many people have already experienced this ‘inner time’ involuntarily during the lockdown period, if they were not working terribly hard in the hospitals and other public services. Those of us who had to stay at home indeed lost track of economic clock time and, after a first phase of unrest and anxiety, may have already experienced this other time Ernst Bloch called ‘seizing the eternity in the moment’. Hope springs from this ‘momentum’; it marks the beginning of any change or creation.

If we look carefully around us, we may already witness these arousals of hopeful perspectives around us. We hear more and more voices proclaim loudly the necessity of a sustainable world and see new democratic initiatives with civic councils in countries like Belgium, Ireland and Danmark, where people become more involved and engaged with the social-political world. We are hearing stronger protests against the unjust tax rates for multinationals and the handful of hyper wealthy who run the world, we read the proposals for a basic income more seriously, we see local groups organizing common grounds of green gardens and sustainable energy sources in their own villages or neighbourhoods.

Hope blinds reason, some politicians might still want to object. Surely it does sometimes. But living without hope means living without any imagination and compassion, which is in fact not living at all. We do not really have a choice. If we want to save our planet and keep our world human we better start hoping and imagining for a better world today. For Oscar Wilde was right when he once wrote: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’


Joke J. Hermsen

Amsterdam, Nederland

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