How I Found Hope at the Circus

“…then maybe there’s actually hope for the world,” I said to my wife. “And how often do you ever hear me say something like that?”

“Less often than a blue moon,” she replied.

She was being charitable. It’s not that I’m a dour person (though it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been so accused). I have a pretty good time; I laugh a lot and take seriously a certain responsibility to enjoy myself. Hope in the world, though – that’s a very different beast than good humor and a pleasant disposition. If we value reason and honesty, it’s a tough one to swallow, if only for the very simple reason that there’s just not a whole lot of evidence to support it.

Whether we’re looking at the standard exploitation and cruelty and oppression that goes on everywhere, unabated, each day, or the fact that we are currently speeding with mad enthusiasm toward for-real extinction, that we may well bring the rest of the life on this planet with us into oblivion, anticipating any sort of positive outcome doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. With all due respect to the rosy sunglasses crowd, the universe does not have a “moral arc” that bends in any particular direction. Those who would cite bizarre studies – you know the ones I’m talking about – that supposedly show that “overall violence” in the world is declining, supposedly “proving” that things are better than ever are victims of a truly impressive stubbornness that separates them from the reality-based community.

I can tell funny stories all day if I want to – and I try – but that has nothing to do with whether or not we are collectively destined toward horror and tragedy.

If you can’t tell, I think about this a lot. But sometimes, some rare times, seemingly against my will and in defiance of my fact-based assessments, hope in the world reaches from out of nowhere to smack me upside the head and send me spinning out. I never really know when it’s going to hit – and if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. Even you.


I can’t remember if I’ve written on here before about those to whom I affectionately refer as “Waldorfos,” and, by total coincidence, this is a subject that’s going to be covered at length in and around our upcoming fourth episode of the Wizard of Monadnock Radio Hour, so I’ll keep this simple. I’m not above repeating myself, but I’ve got too much pride to do it as soon as next week.

Last Friday night, my wife, my parents, and I took my three sons to the annual Hilltop Circus put on by the seventh and eighth grade students at Pine Hill Waldorf School, where my wife had attended herself through eighth grade. Now, I’ve been known to poke fun at some of the easy targets within Waldorf culture – the strange obsession with borderline-abusive grains like millet, the suspicion directed at WiFi beams (or rays or whatever they think they are), the superstitious opposition to plastic, etc. –  but I don’t even attempt to hide the depths of my sincere envy of my wife’s entire childhood experience.

No, I’m not ashamed of it at all – my God, it seems like such a wonderful world. So purely good that it doesn’t seem possible. And for once, I swear, I’m not being snarky. We’re talking about children having a school experience based in creativity and exploration, in play and mythology. It’s an education that imparts an all-seasons love and appreciation for the outdoors (and respect for the human biological need to spend time outside), one with an emphasis on nutrition and health, one intentionally designed to produce confident, balanced, competent, capable, prepared human citizens ready for adulthood in the village (or society, whatever). It seems to work, from what I can tell.

The circus, in fact, had been my idea. My awe at this strange little secret subculture is never more tangible than when I’m inside the school itself. Anthroposophy (upon which Waldorf education is based) is a philosophy that is so holistic that it extends even into the architecture – they actually oppose right angles. And I know how hilarious that sounds. But it produces the most delightful and truly wonder-full building, a house of learning that (no joke) seems to sparkle with a light dusting of magic. It’s the kind of place a wizard would be right at home hanging out, just based on the shape and feel of it.

I am a wizard, and I do feel at home there, and it’s a treat to bring my kids there, to soak in that glow even if only for a single show, even if they like me will never actually attend such a place. And then, before the circus kicked off and in between settling the wild children, I happened to read the back of the program, under the header, Why Circus You Ask? Here’s what it said:

In the words of Australian educator Sharon McCutcheon, “Circus allows children to learn through discovery…to allow the knowledge to be ‘drawn out’ rather than ‘stuffed in’.”

Young people learn how to learn through circus; they must develop patience, self-discipline, concentration, while learning how to set goals.

The children transform their attitude towards mistakes and failure, recognize and change limiting habitual patterns, all while overcoming challenges.

Whoa, damn. Hold on. And I wrestle with this for a minute, because I kinda remember what it’s like being thirteen and fourteen and it’s not really a great time. Everything’s awkward and uncertain, old assumptions thrown out, the ground unsteady, and you’re in this rut where you’re cut off from what you knew as childhood and still barred from the halls of adulthood and you don’t have a clue where you stand, not just in the world but among your peers, but here, instead of what I think of as the normal angsty early teenage experience…here, there were people taking the care and the time to teach thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds how to be human people.

Like, soak that in. That’s how they handle the obstacle course of adolescence. Even with my high regard for the Waldorf way of life, I kind of assumed the circus bit came from more of a place of well-intentioned hippie nihilism. You know, as in like, “YOLO!! Life’s hard enough as it is, let the kids do circus, nothing really matters.” I’m not making fun, either; being someone short on hope, I’m actually quite sympathetic to that argument. It’s a totally valid reason to do a circus.

But now I saw how wrong I’d been. The circus was not an escapist retreat from hopeless circumstances. The circus was a carefully crafted response to the challenges of growing up into an uncertain world, a bold counter-offensive launched to reinforce these kids and bolster their spirits and bestow them with ways of thinking at a difficult time in their development, ways of thinking that would not only put them at ease in the present but also prepare them to deal with whatever other challenges may come in life. I mean, creatively teaching discipline, goal setting, coping with failure and adversity – not in the cold and corporate normal American way, but in a way that rests on a firm belief in the best of human capability – and proves itself through practice, before a live audience.

In other words, the circus was based on the hopeful notion that people might just be capable of doing great things if only such greatness is carefully nurtured in growing children and young adults through the commitment and diligence of the educators and the community at large.

I can’t argue with that. And even if I wanted to, I saw the hope performed before my eyes, sitting with my family, as they took us loosely through the tale of the Wizard of Oz. (I mean, taken just as a show put on by middle schoolers, this was really very good solely on that basis.) But this hopeful, committed philosophy stuck with me as I watched the circus performed, and man, you could really see it in their faces – young people who were somehow comfortable in their own skin, confident before an audience, proud in their accomplishments and without pretense. Sometimes someone would drop a ball or bowling pin while juggling or tip off balance doing some gymnastic trick, and the kids invariably would smile and shrug in a manner more breezy and relaxed than I can imagine from myself on my best of days. As they sang and climbed and swung and rode and formed human pyramids and murdered the Wicked Witch via melting, you could see the effect of all of this, and it was really shocking to me. It was like they had joy in them or something.

I think maybe they actually do.

And so I, hard-hearted and short on hope, I who shall not be moved, found myself both moved and overcome. Knowing that there’s people out there taking the time to actually do this? Of all the things that people choose to do, there were still some who would choose to do this? That’s what gives me the most hope of all. Talk about good faith effort, right?


“If there’s people out there taking the time to teach middle schoolers how to become people, how to live, through circus,” I said to my wife, “then maybe there’s actually hope for the world.”

This is a wild life. It spins you out when you’re not looking, reaches from out of nowhere to smack you upside the head with the notion that all might not be lost after all – and you never know when it’s coming.

You just never know.


Did this post improve your day? Make you scratch your head or involuntarily smile? Support the continued work of a workaday wizard by clicking on over to Patreon. Just a dollar (a buck!) gets you exclusive access to bonus meditations – and it only gets better from there. 


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