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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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A constellation of hope

Wider than a pickup truck and tall enough to brush the fan with his wispy receding hair, each step shakes the world around him. Sam, a self-described Catholic-Redneck falls into his chair, giving the whole room a scare as the metal made a cracking sound. Staring out at the kaleidoscope crowd of people, his gaze lands right on me. 

Sam and I look nothing alike. We have almost no common experiences, but both our lives have been difficult but in very different ways. The only places in our collective memory are this room and him having been stationed near my home when he was in the military. When we eventually got to the topic of our future dreams, he unloaded a laundry list of things.

Yellowed, disintegrating and ominous smiley faces protruded out of the ceiling. Posters peppered the walls with reminders about the process of reporting sexual violence and suicidal ideation. Signs rang hollow with statements like “Heros Work Here: Thankful, Appreciative and Grateful.”

Context defines a writer’s destiny. It’s the glue that makes any story understandable. The context of national conversations makes their words stick. This encounter could have happened in the hallways of my dorm, a high school classroom or the hospital down the street. Yet, our conversation and the smiley faces and signs on the walls were decidedly not average. They were inside Westville Correctional Facility, a prison holding captive nearly 2,000 men, a place where we, as a society, have decided to dispose of people, their stories, their dreams and ideas, and in many ways, slam the door on true repentance or redemption. 

I thought back to just a few hours before I had walked through halls where heroes work — one with modern arches and an atrium that echos when you walk through it. As I descended towards the basement of Jenkins Nanovic Hall, I felt the dread of going to class.

The chalk my professor held almost broke as the blackboard screeched. Her peppered hair held streaks of gray that diverged like a map of her life. She asked us what we saw as our role in “working towards peace.” A sense of existential dread permeated the room. The problems were so great, and our power was so small. 

It seems like the places where optimism should rain down from the skies in the context of the hallowed halls of an exclusive institution like Notre Dame, a place where truly so many doors are open and possibilities for the future are incalculable. 

Seniors have a grand piano of dread hanging over their heads every time the question gets posed: so what are you going to do next year? For me, I know I want to do something to make the world a better place — such is the generational effect. Whether it’s smoothing over potholes, building communities gardens or organizing a voter drive, I know I want to get into the dirt. However, the road ahead feels dusty and uncertain.

“Respectable” options are the graduate school pipeline or a consulting job that will probably be double whatever my future paycheck will be. It’s hard to face the abyss. It’s scary. Last year, in an article for Notre Dame Magazine, I wrote about the optimism of my generation, but a parallel history is that of despair about our place in the future.

Walking through security and the thick iron Salle Ports for the first time, I felt trapped. At 22 years old, thinking of what it means to be free, my bright green visitor badge acted as a literal get-out-of-jail-free sign. 

Being in a room with individuals who have been imprisoned anywhere from one to 20 years, I expected to hear tales of despair and malaise, and while there were plenty of those, there was a deep tension brewing in every word out of their mouths. In the room with 11 inside folks (men who are imprisoned), there were many things I expected to learn: lack of freedom, remorse for wrongdoing, the path to redemption and other cornerstone experiences with those who are incarcerated. 

Yet, the thing I learned the most about was hope. They are folks who deeply understand hope from both sides. For those they harmed, hope is a spigot they turned off. While, their future can feel like a door that has been shut forever. In Westville, some men felt a similar dread, like an anvil that lived atop their head and seemed to sink them into the cold concrete floors. Most of the men I interacted with shined like a lighthouse directing others to safety. 

Some in the world, especially in the context of Notre Dame, attempt to categorize a teleological view of history — an assumption that the world will get better because justice is bound to prevail. But for the men of Westville, their context shows that is not the case. Their lives bear the brunt of that in many ways. As the land of the free, we currently hold 25% of the world’s prison population. 

Sam rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo. In thick black letters, the tattoo had the name of his daughter. Surrounding her name were all the other people he was responsible for and accountable to. They sat on his arm like a bright constellation of the world he hopes to bring about.

I often feel alone in the galaxy, wading through the abyss of space. Graduation feels like this last hurrah, where I fear of becoming someone who one point in time had a bright future. The problems around the world feel impossible: the genocide in Gaza, rising economic inequality and the rapidly increasing prevalence of climate disasters in our communities. It often feels like I could never have a role in solving these issues.

But stars don’t float alone in the universe. They have planets that shield them, other stars that surround them and asteroids that sometimes come to visit. Around me, I constantly see other people who are doing the work over and over again. 

Sam’s tattoo helped remind me that we each exist contextually with others. Dr. Felicia Case has dedicated her life to living the mission of Christ and pushing Christian communities to become anti-racist forces. Will Deschamp rallies the men of Siegfried every week to go help out at the South Bend Center for the Homeless. Pat McGuire has made free and fast broadband a reality in South Bend.

None of these people do what they do alone. Dr. Case has a strong family support network, a thriving congregation and others who would go to bat for her. Deschamp has dozens of other hall staff members, family members, volunteers and friends he gets to come each week. Pat has a thick web of friends that surround him and a work office that puts their trust in him. Those making the world a better place exist within the context of others, but not in competition with others. Each can do their work without making the others’ work impossible.

Constellations are somewhat make-believe. They are groupings of stars that look clumped together enough to us humans. We create the context that gives them meaning. I’ve been searching for a golden ticket or a magic path that will lead me to a final place of success, but success is individually and contextually created. The success I was chasing was not my own construction, but something built by others. 

The hard work is done. We don’t require new revolutionary ideas to create heaven here on earth. It requires scaling up solutions that already exist, finding communities of eudaimonia and building out the world around them. I’ve found heaven in a small corner in Marion, Indiana, in the walkways of Siegfried Hall and in the crooked hallways of South Bend county government.

Martin Luther King Jr. often said “only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.” In moments of darkness, we can each be a part of each other’s constellations of hope. We can create heaven here on earth. It doesn’t require some out-of-this-universe solutions or individuals. 

There is a constellation of hope at the tips of our fingers and all around us. There are people readily working to help make their block a little cleaner and each of them is supported by a multitude of others. No one is doing the abyss right or wrong, better or worse because we’re all on different journeys.  

Meaning comes not from who we are when held towards the invasive lights that are the expectations of others. It comes from doing the work, having others around you, and being willing to reimagine the context around you. I don’t know what I’m doing next year, but I know I’ll start building another constellation wherever I go.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.