Seamus Heaney: ‘Hope and History Rhyme’

seamus-heaneyThe brilliant poet, Seamus Heaney, died last week. I do not pretend to be well-read. Poetry, for the most part, escapes me. And I must confess that the only reason I know about Seamus Heaney at all is because I have friends who are lovers of literature and are constantly sharing bits and pieces of what they love with me.

But one verse of Heaney’s “Doubletake” from The Cure of Troy has echoed in my memory since I first heard it almost a decade ago:

“History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”

The whole piece is beautiful but these words bounce around my head at least daily. It is how I combat all the despair and hopelessness one can feel when hearing the latest news.

In college I was a Peace Studies minor. I was so attracted to the radically different solutions to world problems that I found in these classes. We looked at the evolution of terrorism, conflict resolution both at the micro and macro level and even Catholic peacebuilding around the world. But the class that really helped me structure how I looked at conflict was a class on nonviolent social change. Immediately as I began to study this subject, I realized why I was so drawn to it. At its core, nonviolence is hopeful. It is based on the belief that we can change people; that every person has a conscience and can be brought around to the side of justice. It’s based on the belief that everyone’s heart can be changed for the good.

Many brush this off as implausible and idealistic, but it is practical. We’ve seen it. We are reminded of it in the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We have witnessed these moments when hope and history rhyme. They may be fleeting, they may be few and far between, but we press on working for that longed for tidal wave.

Justice does not happen on its own. We cannot just think it is a nice idea. We have to figure out how we, in our own small way, can make it part of our daily life. While we may not hear about it, there are so many people out there doing good and working to beat evil. Young people don’t care? Nope. Neighbors don’t want anything to do with each other? Wrong. Social Media is the downfall of civilization? Not if they can help it. War and violence are the only answer? False. There is nothing good happening in Syria? Not true.

Even though Seamus Heaney has gone to meet his Creator, we must keep his words close to us. They will continue to remind us to hope and to work for justice even in the darkest of times.