The license plate the state of South Carolina issued to me looks very much like the one you see above. You may know that South Carolina is nick-named “The Palmetto State.” Thus, the palm tree in the middle of the plate is a representation of the Sabal Palmetto, the South Carolina State Tree. How it became so is worthy of historical note. Multiple websites indicate the tree was something of a hero during the Revolutionary War. This is how http://www.statesymbolsusa.org puts it, “The palmetto symbolizes the defeat of the British fleet at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The fort was constructed of palmetto logs which were able to absorb the impact of cannon balls.”
The crescent symbol, which looks like a moon hovering above the palm tree, is not meant to be a moon at all. Historical research tells us it is meant to replicate the silver emblem worn on the caps of South Carolina troops during the war of independence. Cursory research does not appear to mention that the crescent is also coincidentally similar in design to a prominent Islamic symbol. But we shall not dwell on that.
What we do dwell on is a South Carolina state motto emblazoned on the license plate, “While I Breathe, I Hope.” That is a comforting sentiment. It implies that for as long as I am alive, there is hope. But hope for what? A peaceful world? A better life? Prosperity? Success? Surely all of that, and what is hope, anyway?
Launch a Google search with that question, “What is hope?” and you get about 1,110,000,000 results in 0.72 seconds. I was, well, hoping for simpler answers. Obviously, this is a big question. Hope can be very personal. There is religious hope where it means a trust in God. A lot of folks in the Windy City hope the Cubbies can do it again, win another World Series. A pimply-faced teenage boy hopes that red-haired girl will go out with him. Millions hope they will beat the one-in-a-gazillion odds and win that big lottery. Most of us hope our government leaders will just do right by us.
Hope is most often considered an optimistic belief. Not everyone sees it that way. The oft-quoted German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” That may be true for some, especially until last year for long suffering Chicago Cubs fans, but South Africa’s famed Archbishop Demond Tutu has a more edified way of looking at it. “Hope,” he said, “is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
If anyone has been able to see through terrible darkness, it is Bishop Tutu. He, along with many others, including Nelson Mandela, was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s official policy of racial segregation. He bravely spoke out loudly and often against the racist white regime that ruled his county for so many years. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts.
It was my honor and good fortune to get to know Archbishop Tutu well during my posting in South Africa for ABC News in the late 1980’s. He never, ever, lost that sense of hope that one day equality would come for all races in South Africa. While we interviewed Bishop Tutu several times for various stories we filed for ABC’s World News Tonight, or Good Morning American or Nightline, I also had the privilege to have a number of quiet talks with the Anglican cleric. One day we were having one of those talks, sitting in the living room of his Soweto home near Johannesburg. The main subject that day was Nelson Mandela. Negotiations to release the African National Congress Leader and eventual President of South Africa from nearly three decades in prison were underway and matters looked promising. Hope abounded throughout much of the land.
As we chatted, Bishop Tutu’s phone rang in another room. He got up to answer it and shortly I heard his voice rise in excitement. He spoke only a few minutes and the next thing I saw was this revered religious figure literally dancing into the living room, hands in the air, eyes bright, shouts of joy emanating from his throat. “It’s happening!” he shouted. “Nelson is coming home!” The phone call was the official notice. This was hope fulfilled in its greatest form.
The Archbishop continued to dance around the room. He suddenly stopped in front of me, reached down, grabbed my arms, pulled me out of the chair, and said ,”C’mon, celebrate with me!” The two of us then sort of skipped around the room, enjoying that light he had always seen through the darkness.
I think about Desmond Tutu, his ebullient optimism and his strength through hope often, especially in these troubling times we are experiencing. I just keep on breathing. And hoping.