My first thought upon being asked to write this essay.
No, but seriously?
My third thought was about wine. And chocolate. As was my fourth. And fifth.
Reader, it’s been grim. Never before has everything seemed so dire. Never before has the end of the world, of civilisation, felt so tangibly nigh.
Except for maybe 2020. And 2016. And 2008. Okay fine, but now it really feels like it.
Two months ago, the majority of this sunburned country voted against enshrining recognition and representation of Indigenous Australians in our governing constitution, a move that if successful, would have bestowed absolutely no power upon the original inhabitants of this racist island and had close to zero impact on the lives of everyone else.
A week before that, the Islamist organisation Hamas killed 1200 people in Israel, taking approximately 240 more as hostages and reigniting active hostilities in an ancient land battle about which everyone is suddenly an expert.
As I write, over 12,000 people have been killed in Hamas-controlled Gaza, over half of them children, and counting, as Israel’s far-far-far-right government wreaks bloody vengeance in the name of eliminating Hamas, rejecting worldwide calls for a ceasefire and an end to the bombings.
As such, both Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, already ascending before the Hamas attacks, have been turbo-charged across the world, less it seems by Jews and Palestinians towards each other than by white supremacists and other groups using the conflict as a cipher for hate.
And don’t get me started on climate change. No really, don’t. I don’t fully understand and every time I try to fully understand it, I end up fetal in my cat’s anxiety bed softly singing the ten-minute version of Taylor Swift’s All Too Well and wishing I was feline. It wouldn’t stop climate change but I’d be too busy attacking my own reflection to notice.
Of course, these aren’t the only issues of concern in this year of our Lord Beyoncé 2023. Inflation is higher than Seth Rogen, homelessness is de rigueur, and breathing is now a luxury item. Donald Trump, a man currently facing 91 felony counts across the United States, who has vowed to pardon domestic terrorists and lock children seeking asylum in cages, may very possibly become President again – from actual prison. China’s doing whatever we’re accusing China of doing this week. And Phoebe Bridgers left Paul Mescal for Bo Burnham.
Before you ‘what about’ me, I haven’t finished.
There’s also Ukraine, Armenia, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, The Sahel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Taiwan, and any conflicts that break out between now and your reading this. Plus Covid and Brexit and Roe v. Wade and drag protests and book bannings and mass shootings and police violence and deaths in custody and literal children in custody and floods and fires and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and new asylum seekers on Nauru just months after the last ones finally came off and look that’s not it but there’s just so much I can think about plus I have a word count please don’t cancel me.
Breathe, Nadine. Not too much, though, Moneybags.
I was asked to write this essay in part due to what the commissioning editor called the ‘sense of hope’ in my novel, Everyone and Everything, and much of my published writing – my ability to find light in the unlit. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this and I always find it kind of funny because I tend to think of my work as a resounding downer. Regardless, I’m struggling with this one. How can I write about the future with hope when I’m not certain there is any? How can I write about it at all?
Whenever I’m catastrophising, which is always, but whenever I’m doing it existentially rather than about, say, my cat, my long-suffering psychiatrist, let’s call her Joy for fun, always tells me the same thing.
In every era of history, for one reason or another, people have believed the world was ending.
Our brains, says Joy, have limited capacity to see beyond the present, and beyond the boundaries – real and imagined – of what we perceive as ‘the world’. Then she tells me to stay off social media, read Nietzsche, and stop obsessively listening to American politics podcasts. But that’s crazy talk – who needs the psychiatrist now?
Me, it’s still very much me.
In a recent session, however, after cataloguing some of the very legitimate reasons I have believed the world was ending throughout our twelve-year close, personal friendship (or ‘strictly professional medical relationship’, as she insists on calling it), Joy finally admitted, under only mild duress, that things are particularly bleak and world-endy right now.
Yes, it’s getting harder not to panic about climate change, I’ll give you that.
And the Middle East?
And maybe the Middle East.
And Donald Trump?
What have I said about American politics podcasts?
And Donald Trump?
Fine, yes, and Donald Trump.
It was a hollow, self-owning victory but it was mine.
With my anxiety quasi-validated, it was time to find hope. If not that which springs eternal, at least enough to finish this essay. And, If Rihanna could find love in a hopeless place, surely I can find hope in one. But where?
What about the children? Aren’t they supposed to give me hope? I mean I do believe they’re our future but mostly because of mortality and maths. I don’t know them all well enough to draw conclusions. What if the children are arseholes?
My name means hope, is that a thing? Could I be the hope we wish to see in the world? Would the hope we wish to see in the world be alone in bed watching Bridgerton and eating muesli at 5pm on a Saturday? Don’t answer that.
Uninspired, I do what any red-blooded Millennial needing inspiration, celebrity gossip, or videos of a turtle that’s best friends with a dog would do: I open Instagram.
Three and a half hours later, no more hopeful, much more anxious, and down $49 plus $137 shipping for a plumping lip balm that also cures cancer, I close Instagram. So, Joy was right about staying off social media. I guess I have to read Nietzsche now.
I Google ‘Nietzsche world ending quotes’ because I’m too busy, important, and invested in Bridgerton for anything longer than a paragraph.
To what end the ‘world’ exists, to what end ‘mankind’ exists, ought not to concern us at all for the moment except as objects of humour: for the presumptuousness of the little human worm is the funniest thing at present on the world’s stage.
To be fair, this is quite helpful, not for finding hope, but for perspective and shaking off the existentials. There’s something deeply comforting about shrugging off existence itself and imagining myself as a little human worm going about my little human worm business with my little human worm briefcase. In my head, worm me has a briefcase.
I wonder what he said about hope.
Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.
Does Joy hate me? Is she a sociopath? Does she suggest Nietzsche as a joke? To get back at her – a normal, healthy impulse – I put on one of my favourite American politics podcasts.
Lovett or Leave It is a live variety show-podcast hybrid hosted by Jon Lovett, a former Obama administration speechwriter who runs a podcasting and activism network with fellow Obama speechwriting alumni. It’s a funny, political farce and it makes me laugh out loud at least once every episode. It also gives me hope.
From platforming diverse emerging comedians to interviewing politicians who seem to genuinely give a damn, Lovett and his writers have an incredible talent for finding the joke, and sometimes the hope, in even the most sombre news items and, for an hour or so a week, I can picture a world that isn’t ending. But it’s often in the unwritten, closing segment of the show that true hope can be found.
Called the High Note, the closing segment features callers sharing good news or causes for celebration, anything from the birth of a child to maintaining sobriety to convincing a relative to vote, but many callers share news about friends and family or about progress in their community. It’s unironically wholesome and steeped in kindness and listening just now I realise that’s where hope lies.
Hope lies in acts of kindness, big and small.
It lies in my friend Dulce, a refugee advocate and tireless campaigner for human rights and social justice, who would give you the shirt off her back and the food off her plate just because you had a mildly irritating day.
It lies in all the women I know like Dulce, and those I don’t, who give their time and energy freely and quietly to help those less fortunate, for no praise or material reward, out of the kindness of their hearts. A silent army of angels.
It lies in how whenever I have needed items or funds for the people I advocate for, my social media communities have come through, often above and beyond the ask. Clothes, food, prams, toys, lawnmowers, rent, dental bills, surgeries, and more. Once we raised $50,000 towards a young refugee woman’s university tuition in eight hours.
And it lies in all the volunteers at Sydney Story Factory, helping vulnerable children discover the joy and escapism of writing. I think about how once there I saw Markus Zusak give a little girl his beautiful, leather-bound notebook, purchased on a trip to Italy, because she said she liked it. I watched her become overwhelmed with disbelief and gratitude. I will never forget it.
Perhaps because of that one small act of kindness, that little girl now has writing in her bones. Perhaps she’ll grow up to be a writer. Perhaps she’ll grow up to be an accountant or aeronautical engineer but please allow me to tie this all together poetically.
I still think the world might be ending but I’ve found hope in the present and it’s time to write the future.
Nadine J. Cohen is a writer and refugee advocate from Sydney. She has written extensively across Australian media, with bylines in The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Morning Herald, ABC, Harper’s Bazaar and more, and her debut novel, Everyone and Everything, was published in September 2023, to critical acclaim. Nadine advocates for refugees affected by offshore detention and was a co-founder and director of Hope for Nauru, a volunteer-run charity that served refugees and asylum seekers detained on Nauru by the Australian Government.