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Everything is Going to be Alright?
A Reflection on the Audacious Possibility of Hope
“Everything is going to be alright.”
Many years ago, I strolled by the Wing Sang building in Vancouver’s Chinatown and I was captivated by the glow of white neon-lights that declared to the neighbourhood: Everything is going to be alright. Commissioned by real estate magnate Bob Rennie, this installation was created by the award-winning artist Martin Creed as part of a restoration project in the area. It had my attention. It still does.
This bright message arrived just before the $7-billion 2010 Olympics. Its proximity to one of Canada’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods and the extravagance of the Olympics made it all the more intriguing as a piece. While billions were spent to prepare the city alongside not-so-subtle efforts to conceal the city’s less presentable realities, the statement was ambiguous. Is it a message of optimism, hope, irony, cynicism, or despair? How does it resonate with a neighbourhood grappling with gentrification, or with those ensnared in a cycle of violence or addiction? Is it genuinely comforting for overburdened social workers?
For many, it felt out of touch.
Vancouver is not the only place to be graced by Creed’s installation. It has traveled the world, appearing throughout Italy, the United States, the Netherlands, Scotland, and New Zealand. Its debut was in 1999 on the Clapton Portio building in Hackney, London. At the time, the Portio was in shambles. So, Creed’s installation evoked the same tensions as it did in Vancouver. While some praised its hopeful optimism, one critic wrote, “There has never been a worse time to decorate this place with the phrase ... the neon says everything is going to be alright, but the art is not so sure.” When asked about its meaning, Martin Creed responded, “It means everything is going to be alright.” But is this a message we can take at face value?
I wrote about Creed’s installation almost a decade ago, but it has resurfaced in my thoughts recently. It continues to clash with the turmoil of the world around us. In recent months, British Columbia has witnessed catastrophic wildfires, Morocco was shaken by a massive earthquake, Libya endured a devastating flood, Hamas committed heinous acts of terrorism, and Ukraine and Russia remain entangled in a destructive conflict. Can we genuinely believe that everything is going to be alright? I have a difficult time believing this message for my little life, let alone the whole world. In the grand scheme of things, it appears that everything is steadily unraveling before our eyes. Everything is decisively not alright. If we want to embrace the message of Creed’s installation, perhaps we have to keep our eyes firmly shut.
Patching Wounds with Clichés
I think we can all sympathize with critical interpretations of Creed’s installation. It’s not enough to offer people empty platitudes. But it’s all too common to utter phrases like Everything will be alright when faced with uncomfortable situations. These words pour forth like a reflexive response to the overwhelming reality of a world that often appears far from alright. We yearn for suffering, heartbreak, disease, environmental crises, and conflict to be vanquished. But part of us also tries to avoid confronting these harsh realities. So we tell ourselves, we tell others, we put it on a building, Everything is going to be alright as if that will do the trick. It’s as if we apply a small band-aid to patch a gaping wound. It’s not going to help.
Nobody likes having their issues bypassed with clichés. But it happens all the time. Sadly we can even use our spirituality to evade confronting emotions, issues, or trauma. This is called spiritual bypassing. When someone passes away, and grief envelops us, phrases like “Well, they are in a better place now” are sometimes said to sidestep the pain. In times of struggle or conflict, Scriptures such as “God works all things for good” are evoked to minimize complex issues. These promises, though true, can lose some of their comfort when used to avoid sitting with others in their pain or to brush aside the deep uncertainty and fear stirred by events unfolding in the world.
When we encounter the words Everything will be alright emblazoned on buildings neighbouring extreme poverty and marginalization, it's only natural to harbour reservations.
In many situations, the stark reality is that things are far from alright. We grapple with a lack of hope in a brighter future, uncertainty about the outcomes of our struggles, and worry because there is no discernible path toward things being alright—let alone well and good. So, when we encounter the words Everything will be alright emblazoned on buildings neighbouring extreme poverty and marginalization, it’s only natural to harbour reservations. This message can feel like a large-scale form of spiritual bypassing, which casts a shadow of doubt on any hope or comfort it can offer to a broken and hurting world.
Sometimes we just need to say: Everything is not alright.
We live in a fallen and broken world.
No slogan, no spiritual bypassing, can change that.
Telling It Slant
Let me be clear: I deeply appreciate Martin Creed’s art. The incongruity he creates between Everything will be alright and its surroundings carries a kind of prophetic slant. It provokes. It stirs our emotions, be it hope or despair. For me, his provocation brings me back to the basics of Christian hope. After all, Jesus Christ as the Son of God is the One who declares at the end of the age, Behold, I make all things new. I think it’s fair to say that Christians can hear Everything will be alright as a paraphrase of this hope.
I think Martin Creed wanted people to wrestle with this question: Can we find hope within the conditions all around us? Or will we turn to despair? But Jesus adds another layer to this provocation: Do we live in a world where resurrection or death has the final say?
Even if we are oriented toward the hope of resurrection, what does it mean to hold this hope in the midst of the world that is in shambles? When it comes to complex issues that envelop our planet, like the heinous acts committed by Hamas and the intricate complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict, on this side of eternity, the horror of these events cannot be undone. What good does hope offer?
If we do not have the hope of resurrection, if we do not have the hope of a God of Justice who can make all things right, at best, we only have the hope of making partial amends.
If we do not have the hope of resurrection, if we do not have the hope of a God of Justice who can make all things right, at best, we only have the hope of making partial amends. We cannot undo all that has been done. We cannot right the wrongs, no matter how many consequences are doled out. We cannot raise the dead. But if God raises the dead, if God judges the living and the dead, if God will make a new heaven and earth, then the possibility of true justice exists: one that can eclipse the horrors we’ve witnessed in this world by truly making everything alright.
Even so, even so, I fear I can still wield Behold! I make all things new as a way to spiritually bypass all the pain and horror. But I suppose this is the risk of our human proclivities. The promise of All things new wasn’t given so that we can shrug apathetically, Oh well, Jesus will eventually get around to fixing it. It’s not given so we can dismiss the world until it’s made new, Oh well, the world is just going to burn. The promise is offered within the profoundly political book of Revelation and it was meant to engender faithful endurance in the oppressive chaos of the Roman Empire. Although heavenly in origin, it had very earthly implications. Yet, I don’t know how to hold out this hope in a way that doesn’t take a little bit of the edge off of the tragedy that is occurring. All I can do is add this qualifier: true hope, real hope, the hope I hope I have does not diminish the horrific sights and images that bombard us through the news. It amplifies them. They are even more grievous in the light of God. And this hope doesn’t allow us to let them become a pile of ashes, a collection of things that cannot be undone in the annals of history either.
If we asked Jesus, what does your promise mean? I think he might respond in the same way Creed did when asked about his instillation, “It means Behold! I make all things new.”
We can only take it at face value. Let it provoke what it will provoke in us. Will you hope or despair? Is resurrection or death the core of reality?
The Movement of Hope
There is something attractive about hope in itself. At least, a hope that is gritty enough to face the facts without spiritual bypassing, a hope that can admit, “This hurts. I don’t see a way forward. I don’t know if it’ll resolve. I don’t know what we can do. But I can’t give in to despair in the bleakness of the dark either.” Our hope does not distance us from suffering but draws us into it. Everything is not alright. This is why we grieve and lament. This is why we can defiantly refuse to gloss over loss, pain, uncertainty, and trauma. But no matter how bleak, the possibility of resurrection remains—Jesus will declare Behold! I make all things new. And if that new heaven and earth is on the horizon, what could be possible now as we sift through the aftermath of all that is wrong?
Our hope in this promised future is not justification for passivity. But let’s not forget, hope on its own merit is a virtue. Hope alone can be celebrated. It moves us toward Christ, humanity, and our world. There are no easy answers to the challenges we face around the globe. Many defy our understanding and capacity. In many instances, we can only offer prayer and hold onto hope. We might always feel some incongruity between our hope and the state of the world, like the tension of Creed’s installation in downtrodden places. But we do not face our fallen and broken world from a foundation of despair. As I heard the scholar Hans Boersma say recently, “Despair is not a Christian option.” Because our hope is not in our own ingenuity but in Christ, who is deeply committed to the redemption of our lives and all of creation. This kind of hope is not natural. It’s not a matter of mustering it up. It’s a gift we receive. As the apostle Paul declares in his ancient and enduring benediction over the church, including us:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
May it be so.