The Power of Hope



“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve been enamored with Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote. Reassured and inspired by her confidence that the dreams of today can shape the future of tomorrow, I wrote it on my whiteboard the moment I moved into my dorm room so that I could see it every day. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if this quote expresses naïve idealism and callow faith in our ability to achieve our dreams. Eight years ago, Barack Obama inspired us with his call for hope. Could such a call ring true today? Is there a place for optimism in our current political climate? I say there is.

145946787756fdb665464c9In 2000, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma invited a group of musicians to join him for a weekend retreat. They came from all over the world with their violins, a clarinet or two, bagpipes, a traditional Iranian kamancheh, a Chinese pipa. Ma’s idea was to “explore how the arts can advance global understanding.”

Within a year, several of the musicians founded the Silk Road Ensemble. 16 years later, they are still touring the globe, performing compositions that weave together musical traditions spanning time and space. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to “connect the world through the arts.”

I’m so glad I saw the film The Music of Strangers, a documentary about the Ensemble, directed and produced by filmmaker Morgan Neville, that was released this summer. The film is explicitly about the power of music. And although some of the musicians raise doubts about the extent of that power—suggesting that it is is dwarfed in light of the struggles many of them have faced, in light of violence and hatred and war—it’s impossible to reach the end credits without feeling a renewed sense of hope, without thinking that this group of musicians is making the world a better place.

But hope is a tricky thing, as we’re witnessing in our current election cycle. “It could be,” David Brooks wrote in the New York Times in July, “that in this moment of fear, cynicism, anxiety and extreme pessimism, many voters may have decided that civility is a surrender to a rigged system, that optimism is the opiate of the idiots.”

But optimism and naïvity are not the same. Hope isn’t just “the opiate of the idiots”; it can even go hand in hand with disillusionment. For to be optimistic is to acknowledge that though things aren’t perfect, they can be improved with dedication and hard work. It may be a long slog—as change often is—but to recognize that there is potential for a better future is the first step toward making that dream a reality.

There will, of course, be times of hopelessness. But the moment we lose even the faintest glimmer of hope—the moment we descend into cynicism and despair—we lose all power to shape the future. As Brooks concludes, if voters really have decided that “optimism is the opiate of the idiots … then the throes of a completely new birth are upon us and Trump is a man from the future.” Indeed, Trump’s chief talent is exploiting hopelessness to convince us that he “alone can fix it.”

Maybe that’s the power of the arts: Whether it be music, painting or literature, art offers some semblance of hope, even in the most bleak circumstances.


At the end of The Music of Strangers, one of the members of the Silk Road Ensemble, a Syrian clarinetist, visits a refugee camp, and smuggled in dozens of recorders for the children. The audience around me gasped at an overhead shot of the dusty tent-city that stretched from horizon to horizon, where men, women, and children my own age are somehow expected to make a home and live a normal life. But the recorders are a gift of music, a small token of hope.

The Music of Strangers may be about the power of the arts, but at heart, it’s about maintaining hope. It’s about taking optimism from the realm of the passive into that of the active. For hope must be a spark that spurs us to action. The Silk Road Ensemble is one incarnation of optimism, but there are countless others, some already out there, others waiting to be born.

What exactly did Eleanor Roosevelt mean when she said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”? She was, I think, urging us not to lose faith in the power of hope and our ability to achieve a better future.

Here is the website for the film:

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