Where Have All the Hopeful Gone, Long Time Passing?

By Tom Gilson Published on June 23, 2023

My wife put a Chad Mitchell Trio playlist on the other day. They were by far the best of the 60s folk groups, in my humble (yet accurate!) opinion. I was just seven years old when they released “The Marvelous Toy,” and I still think it’s the funnest song ever. They had fun with just about everything they sang, you could hear it in their voices, especially the backgrounds. They had a political side, but in songs like “Alma Mater” they showed they could have fun there, too.

The group got serious, though, with Pete Seeger’s hymn, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” If you want to understand what’s changed in the world since 1956 when he wrote it, or 1962 when the Chad Mitchell Trio recorded it, just listen to these solemn yet hopeful lyrics.

“Last night I had the strangest dream,
I’d never dreamed before:
I dreamed the world had all agreed
to put an end to war.

I dreamed I saw a mighty room,
and the room was filled with men.
And the papers they were signing said
they’d never fight again.”

And the people outside …
“Were dancing round and round
as guns and swords and uniforms
were scattered on the ground.”

The Hopeful Generation

Hope like this was common in the 60s. Too bad it’s helped lead to so much of our problems today.

Not that we couldn’t use some hope right now. I could almost get nostalgic looking back. Students in the 60s were out to change the world, and willing to face tear gas and police in riot gear to make it happen. They protested the war in Vietnam. They protested war, period. Some joined in with civil rights protestors.

They protested because they knew what was wrong, and because they thought they had the answer figured out. “If I Had a Hammer,” sang Peter, Paul and Mary, “I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land” — another Pete Seeger song. It ended with no “if” involved. They had that hammer, and the bell, and the song that went with it. (Peter, Paul and Mary also sang the Pete Seeger song I based this article’s title on, one written from the darker side of anti-war protest.)

And why not think positive? We put a man on the moon in that decade! Never mind the race problems. Never mind three mind-reeling political assassinations, and the dead in American cities, where rioting remains the worst the country has ever seen. I might have added, never mind the dead in Vietnam, but these students were the last to overlook it. Many of the men on campus were there thanks to student draft deferments.

To Dream Impossible Dreams

But they had an answer for all that: “Never trust anyone over 30” — the phrase coined by a Berkeley activist, echoed by almost everybody. (Everybody under 30.) “There’s a whole generation with a new explanation,” sang Scott Mackenzie, in a hit cover of a song written by The Mamas and the Papas. John Lennon outdid them all for optimism, with “Imagine,” He thought it sounded good, anyway. He released it in 1971, but it belonged to the 60s.

Such hope they had, such high expectations! So different from today’s students, bound in fear, insisting on “safety,” threatened by the mere voice of someone speaking words they don’t like. Where’d the optimism go? What happened?

The 1960s flowered on hopes of what humanity could do. It ended up proving what humans couldn’t do.

Pete Seeger, that’s what happened. And the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Mamas and the Papas, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and the 5th Dimension, with their mystic dreams of “harmony and understanding.” What happened was students dreaming the strangest dream. Don Quixote in “The Man of La Mancha” (1965) was a man of the 1960s with his daring To Dream the Impossible Dream.

“Impossible” is a good name for Pete Seeger’s dream, too. but “strangest” fits well enough. How strange to think the world could agree to “put an end to war”! I’m half imagining this “paper” they all signed had sub-paragraphs, committing them to give up their lust for power, their greed, their desire to dominate along with their guns. Half of them would have signed it while hiding evil grins, thinking, “What delightful idiots they all are. Now I can really take over!”

Hope Dies

Unrealistic optimism feels lovely, I’m sure, just as a drugged haze must seem lovely. (The 60s had a lot of that going on, too.) Feeling good is one thing, keeping a sane and healthy connection to reality is another. But reality has a way of catching up with regardless. It caught up hard and strong with the 60s generation on May 4, 1970, when National Guard troopers stopped a student protest at Kent State by shooting four of them dead.

Some say the 60s died that day. Others say its carcass kept flailing until 1974, when President Nixon resigned. Either way, the cause of death was collision with reality. The 1960s flowered on hopes of what humanity could do. It ended up proving what humans couldn’t do.

And what do students hope for now? Nothing inspiring. Just more personal autonomy, more self-invention, which translates to more loneliness, less uniting for real change, possibly even less linkage with reality than Seeger’s strange dream. They do it in a world whose grandest hope, apparently, is not to die. The whole point of COVID policy was never to go on living, only not to die. Today’s generation is more lonely, more anxious, more depressed, more fearful than any that’s come before.

Is it any wonder people want to retreat into themselves? Even re-manufacture themselves?

The 1960s Made the 2020s

I do not want to over-simplify things. There’s much more playing into this. It’s easy to trace lines of thought from today back through the 60s to early stirrings of cultural Marxism as far back as 90 years ago. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin are all part of the story.

Yet there’s a sense in which one might say the fruit of 1960s unrealistic optimism is 2020s unbearable pessimism. If students today are fearful of the wrong things, it’s partly because students 60 years ago were hopeful for the wrong things. If today’s generation is paralyzed with unrealistic fear, it’s partly due to the 60s generation running too hard on unrealistic hopes.

I’ve heard atheists say Christianity is an unrealistic fairy tale, but it’s far more realistic than the tales they try to live by. More genuinely hopeful, too.

That optimism looks so different from today’s pessimism, but they both share the same fatal flaw: resting everything on humanity: “The world isn’t right as it is. Fixing it is totally up to us.” You can speak that in bold optimism or hopeless pessimism. Either way it’s bound to fail.

The Missing Story of Hope

Some readers will know I’ve left something out of the story. The Jesus People movement flourished alongside 60s drug and protest culture. Its influence still lives alongside today’s hopelessness. That’s no surprise: For 2,000 years now the “Jesus Movement” — that is, the Church, the followers of Christ — has endured alongside all manner of global hopelessness in the world. It lives in hope, realistic hope, really connected to the real God who knows human failure, who came to earth to save us from our sinful selves.

I’ve heard atheists say Christianity is an unrealistic fairy tale, but it’s far more realistic than the tales they try to live by. More genuinely hopeful, too.

One generation oversold hope and optimism, building it on the wrong foundation. Another generation misses out on hope and optimism, thinking there is no foundation at all. Another people, the people of Christ, have kept hope alive for millennia. May we shine forth that hope today.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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