Tom Whyman is a father. He wrote Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster while preparing for the birth of his first child. His book is a rigorous, engaging, and illuminating exercise of ethical, critical thinking in these end times.
Full disclosure: this reviewer is a parent. But I propose to you, dear reader, that my enthusiasm is warranted.
One of my favorite poets is also a parent. Whyman’s book brought to mind these lines from Craig Morgan Teicher’s poem “I Am a Father Now”:
I sleep when I can, and I can’t die.
I have never been as mortal as now. I bend low,
my back aching and breaking under grateful weight. No matter—I’ll grow another.
The speaker in the poem will die, of course. The hope implicit in the verse is that he will not die before he has given everything his children might need to live “good” lives. Well, not everything. Just everything that he has.
Everything for Whyman is that first ultrasound and the accompanying realization that he can no longer “opt out” from the world or start from scratch; from this point on, he will always be carrying something over from whatever version of his life came before. Moreover, the fact that this something is a child means that who or what he becomes only matters to the extent that it allows the child to flourish as whoever or whatever they decide to be. Whyman writes: “the child, too, is a contingency one stakes one’s being on and, in doing so, abandons oneself to.”
Whyman is a philosopher. These are some of the thinkers in the company of whom the author thinks of—and through—hope: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, and Jean Rhys. To be honest, just gleaning over some of the details of their lives is enough to leave one wondering what good it does to hope for the better. This is precisely the book’s central question:
“… is such a good life really even possible: for you, for any child born today … for anyone who might one day be alive in this world at all? And if it’s not … what then?”
Whyman’s thoughtful gesture is his obstinance in thinking through the what then? And so, he convincingly—and to be frank, heartwarmingly—argues in these pages for a hopefulness that is politically committed and ethically engaged, an active sort of hoping—grounded in an acute awareness of socio-economic crisis and climate change—that distances itself from the well-worn comforts of “wishful thinking.” Whyman writes: “Right now, in our very bad world, our hope must be tinged with the assumption of pessimism—such that we are able to take on the world as it is.”
There is, it should be noted, a readily identifiable enemy here: it is the cynic who “recognizes that yes, it would be good if good things were possible, but believes it to be a mark of hard-won maturity to disavow them.” Hope, then, is often thought to be the exclusive province of the immature, the childish—a position that Whyman embraces because it implies a disposition to remain open—and therefore vulnerable—to what goes on within and around us.
Vulnerability, it should be said, is one of the preeminent conditions of parenting—having to come to grips with the fact that the little one who is your everything will end up exposed to the cruelties of the world. Parenting would be intolerable if it weren’t for hope. The hope that even if your back breaks, you will still be able to raise your children up. That when you die, they will remember the breaking, yes, but will also carry the knowledge deep inside them of how the broken continue.
No matter—I’ll grow another.
GIULLERMO REBOLLO GIL reviewer
Guillermo Rebollo Gil (San Juan, 1979) is a poet, sociologist, and attorney. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Fence, Feed, Mandorla, Spry, Second Factory, Trampset, Trampoline, FreezeRay, and Anti-Heroin Chic. His book-length essay Writing Puerto Rico: Our Decolonial Moment, a careful consideration of the potentialities of radical thought and action in contemporary Puerto Rico, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in their New Caribbean Studies Series. He belongs to/with Lucas Imar and Ariadna Michelle. Happily so.
Whyman, Tom. Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster. Repeater Books, 2021.
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