The Thing with Feathers

Nederlander met vogel, 1840 – 1850.  Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Thing with Feathers

By   |  Jun. 26, 2015

Editor’s Note: The following are selections on the topics of hope and commitment, by David Carlson


The recognition of possibilities gone forever inspires us with a sense of urgency. Delay is costly to us and even more to our descendants and to the other species with which we share the planet. It is already very late. It is hard to avoid bitterness about what might have been done and about the additional missed opportunities each day. It is hard to avoid resentment toward those who continue so successfully to block the needed changes.

Yet there is hope. On a hotter planet, with lost deltas and shrunken coastlines, under a more dangerous sun, with less arable land, more people, fewer species of living things, a legacy of poisonous wastes, and much beauty irrevocably lost, there will still be the possibility that our children’s children will learn at last to live as a community among communities. Perhaps they will learn also to forgive this generation its blind commitment to ever greater consumption. Perhaps they will even appreciate its belated efforts to leave them a planet still capable of supporting life in community.

— Daly, Herman E., and John B. Cobb, Jr. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. 2nd ed. enl. With contributions by Clifford W. Cobb. (Boston: Beacon: 1994), pp. 405-406.

Realistic Hope

For me, it is the belief in this Spirit, the giver of life and love, that is the ground of hope. In spite of all the destructive forces we let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways . . . In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in you as well.
–John B. Cobb, Jr., “Hope for a Dying Planet,” in Sustainability: Economics, Ecology and Justice. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), p. 125.

Two Poems on Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

§ § §

Hope is a subtle glutton;
He feeds upon the fair;
And yet, inspected closely,
What abstinence is there!

His is the halcyon table
That never seats but one,
And whatsoever is consumed
The same amounts remain.

–Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson, selected, with an introduction and notes, by John Malcolm Brinnin (New York: Dell, 1974 [1960]), p. 35, p. 142.

“The Well Dressed Man With A Beard”

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…

It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.

–Wallace Stevens, “The Well Dressed Man With a Beard,” first published in “Parts of a World” (1942), in Collected Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens (Library of America ed.), p. 224.

The Moviegoer

I don’t quite know what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fiber of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man. (Aunt Emily, speaking to Binx Bolling)

–Walter Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Noonday Press, 1969), p. 54.

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

–Wendell Berry, from The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982 (San Francisco: North Point, 1987).

All I Cannot Save

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

–Adrienne Rich, an excerpt from “Natural Resources,” in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974-1977 (Norton, 1978), p. 67.

Lyrics from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone,
You’ll never walk alone.

–sung by Nettie

Lyrics from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music”

Climb ev’ry mountain
Search high and low
Follow ev’ry by-way
Every path you know

Climb ev’ry mountain
Ford ev’ry stream
Follow ev’ry rainbow
Till you find your dream

A dream that will need
All the love you can give
Everyday of your life
For as long as you live

–sung by the Mother Abbess


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

* Undefeated, unconquered

–William Ernest Henley (1888). Widely available in anthologies. Nelson Mandela was inspired by this poem during his 27 years in prison for his uncompromising belief in racial equality in South Africa.

Life Question and Response

I don’t know Who—or what—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

–Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, trans. Leif Sjoberg and W. H. Auden, with a Foreward by W. H. Auden (New York: Knopf, 1980), 205.  This journal entry was written less than four months before Hammarskjöld’s death in a plane crash near Ndola, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) on September 18, 1961. In his second term as UN Secretary-General, Hammarskjöld was en route to Ndola to negotiate a cease-fire between the UN and forces from Katanga, then a breakaway state from the Republic of Congo-Léopoldville. (Wikipedia)

Frederick Buechner

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

–Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (HarperOne, 1993). Revised and expanded. First published as A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, 1973).

John Muir

“Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.”

John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, Linnie Marsh Wolfe, ed. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1979). The original publication (Houghton Mifflin, 1938) is out of print. This excerpt is a journal entry from 1872.

David Rhoads

“We will not save what we do not love.”

–“Reading the Bible With Care for Creation.”

Alice Walker

“Anything we love can be saved.”

Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism (Random House, 1997).

Augustine of Hippo

Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.

–As quoted in Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy by Robert McAfee Brown (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988), p. 136.

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.

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