Scott Russell Sanders,
Hunting for Hope:
A Father's Journey

(Beacon Press, 1998)

Happiness does not come easily to Scott Russell Sanders. By his own admission, he is prone to periods of dark introspection and days of frantic activity designed to stave off what he calls the "slide down the slope towards gloom." By night he's plagued by fears so intense he's forced to leave his bed and house in order to touch the earth, walk among the trees and be reminded that he is safe.

Given his upbringing as the child of an alcoholic father, whose unpredictable behavior made safety impossible, Sander's tendency to focus on what's wrong with the world is certainly understandable. Nevertheless, he was shocked when his teenage son Jesse turned on him and shouted, "You make me feel the planet's dying, and people are to blame, and nothing can be done about it. ... Maybe you can get by without hope, but I can't!"

This furious accusation was hurled at Sanders during a backpacking trip high in the Rocky Mountains. It took the father and son many uphill miles and hours of painful discussion to make their peace with one another, but the whole episode left Sanders deeply disturbed. "Had I really deprived my son of hope?" he asks. "Was this what lurked between us, driving us apart, the demon called despair?"

Fortunately for Sanders, Jesse's voice was not the only one raising questions about despair. In his role as a university professor, Sanders was repeatedly approached by students who were worried "about the future of our whole motley species, our fellow creatures, and the planet." Even Sanders' daughter Eva, a healthy, successful young woman on the verge of marriage, came to him to ask if he thought she should consider having children given the state of the world.

Sanders' response to his children and students is chronicled in this his 22nd book, Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journey. The book is divided into a series of chapters devoted to exploring reasons for hope, interspersed with chapters that describe Sander's evolving relationship with his son.

The reasons Sanders has identified for hope are deceptively simple: expectation, wildness, the body's receptivity, family, fidelity, human skill, simplicity, beauty and spirit. At the heart of each of these reasons, however, lie complex threads of interwoven life -- Sanders' own experiences coupled with those of family, friends, naturalists, poets, scientists and philosophers. In short, Sanders has drawn from any and all resources at his disposal to cobble together his vision of hope. It is an extraordinary endeavor, and one that, while fascinating, is not always satisfying.

What makes the book problematic is Sanders' inability to let go of his need to identify and articulate what is wrong with the world. Despite the fact that he assures us he "will not belabor the causes for concern, will not try to demonstrate the menace posed by nuclear weapons, population growth, pollution, extinction, or global warming," will not "cite the dismal numbers about divorce and poverty, about crime and random cruelty ... the dangers of technology run askew from human purpose, the vacuity of mass media devoted to sales pitches and cheap thrills, the sterility of a life given over to the pursuit of money and toys," Sanders returns again and again to these sore spots, worrying them like a bad tooth that needs to be extracted. This irritating habit of using his gifts to force readers into the depths with him, casts an unpleasant pall across the entire book and calls its stated purpose into question. It's a bit like knowing there's a large raptor perched in the wings ready to descend with open talons each time you let your guard down and begin to enjoy the writing.

For all that Sanders occasionally lets his own despair get the better of him, there are many moments of real luminosity and insight to be found in here. Sanders is at his best when he turns the spotlight of his brilliant prose on examples of hope in his own life. Some of my favorites include the inquisitive child in the subway car who "squirmed in his mother's lap and stared at anyone and everyone, as though he had just been set down among marvels. The utterly clear gaze of those brown eyes swept over me like warm rain"; an afternoon spent sitting on a rock in the middle of a river "enveloped in mist and rushing water-sound"; and the beauty of his daughter on her wedding day, which leads him to conclude, "I have lived among enough people whose beauty runs all the way through, I have been renewed by enough places and creatures, I have fed long enough from certain works of intellect and imagination, to feel absolutely certain that genuine beauty is more than skin deep, that real beauty dwells not in my own eye alone but out in the world."

It is these moments of undisguised wonder and delight, combined with the underlying, child-like honesty of the author, that saves the book from itself. Clearly Sanders is not the sort to deliberately harm another human being, much less give him or her cause for despair. Instead, I found myself marveling at the courage and tenacity it took for him to address his son's angry claims; to take a good hard look at his own fears, and then make a conscious effort to focus on all that is most precious and most worth preserving in our world. It was an enormous task, and if it isn't always successful, at least it's a start; at least, as Sanders says, "my struggles with Jesse had convinced me of the need for hope, a lesson I had known but forgotten in my preoccupation with loss."

- Rambles
written by by Jena Ball
published 14 December 2002

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