The Planting of Critical Hope: The Practice of Grief and the Blooming of Justice

Dear Friends,

Critical hope is defined by Scholar Paulo Freire as a way of addressing injustice through meaningful dialogue—we are not hopeful because we wait for the future, because we create it.

Critical thinking is the process by which we interrogate and dismantle. Critical hope is the state of mind and heart in which we envision what things can look like when they are put back together according to the world we want to see…

A piece in the University Affairs Journal this about Critical Hope in our Covid/post-Covid world:

Critical hope acknowledges that the world as we know it is changing rapidly. We ask ourselves how we might remake the post-COVID-19 world to be more just, equitable and inclusive. We double down on collaboration and community just as we understand silver linings are not always afforded to the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.

This article contrasts critical hope with toxic positivity, which “promises us that everything is going to be fine.” One way we in the CRSL are aspiring to enact critical hope is to reject the route of this “toxic positivity,” so prevalent in our society, which tends to sensationalize violence but to push suffering; especially that of marginalized communities; into corners. Thus, to name and mark loss and grief is an act of resistance. Last month we gathered in this spirit in our Generating Justice and Joy Covid One Year Zoom Memorial, and as we will this Thursday at 5:30 pm our in-person Covid One Year memorial. A burden shared is a burden halved, and when we help each other carry each other generate an energy that is greater than the sum of our losses.

In our in-person memorial we will use bulbs gleaned from our very own bulb show; each one representing a loss we wish to embed in the ground so that it can bring us new insight, new love and new hope as it blooms anew.

No one who has lost a loved one this past year, or those whose lives have been profoundly disrupted by Covid 10 should have to suffer alone. We see you. We hear you. We want to travel with you. If you have lost friends or loved ones, we want to celebrate their lives with you, to help you to re-member them. You matter to us and thus they matter to us too.

At the same time the focus should be on sharing not comparing, as described in a recent New York Times article, which notes that it is important to grieve the smaller sadnesses of this past year—dreams deferred, celebrations missed, frustrations heightened. When our hearts are open to our own losses, we can more easily feel the pain of others. In the words of adrienne maree brown:

The broken heart can cover more territory. That perhaps love can only be as large as grief demands. That grief is the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life. That grief is gratitude. 
(― Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds)

Never has there been a time when “the personal is political” has been so apt. For the griefs of the past year; from the over 600,000 lives lost to Covid, to the hate crime which resulted in the death of eight people, five of them Asian Americans; to the most recent highly publicized police murder of a black citizen, Duane Wright, are all revelatory of a system in which white supremacy, extreme inequality, and violence and domination are embedded.

Showing up for one another, refusing to be in denial about the grief of your classmate, neighbor, teacher, and little sib—is to cultivate critical hope. We can do our part to create a new normal where grief is shared, not compared, where vulnerability is not a contest but an ethos of mutual respect and care. Sometimes this means we will feel comfortable, not know what to say, doubt ourselves, feel awkward. If you feel this way in relation to other’s pain, it is likely you are doing something right.

As an institution of higher education, we are uniquely situated to embrace critical hope. Higher education is a place where paradigms are interrogated and changed.

The University Affairs Journal article ( goes on to say about this:

… Critical hope understands complexity and discomfort as a necessary process of transformation, and holds spaces for candid and uncomfortable conversations as a way forward. It is a narrative recognizes that “normal” was a system based on inequity and injustice that benefitted a privileged few. (This is in contrast to) Toxic positivity, which effaces conflict and doesn’t allow room for disagreement or discontent. This narrative denies that we are in the midst of radical transformation and instead advocates for a return to normality.

We hope that in our classrooms and houses and gathering in the grass in the spring air will we will work together to dismantle the old ways of being that are grounded in injustice and inequity, as a way of resisting “toxic positivity.”  In our memorial on Thursday we will say the names of those whose deaths have affected us, both in the world and in our personal lives, and also here in in the Smith Community.

Just as we dismantle in order to re-order, we grieve in order to re-member. This spring has not been easy, but it has been rich and beautiful. It continues to emerge in the fruit tree blossoms and the daffodils on “Paradise Island.” Let’s nourish the soil with our critical hope.

Matilda and the CRSL Staff

Matilda Cantwell is CRSL’s Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and College Chaplain.
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