What is Hope?

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“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”

Noam Chomsky

Hope is an expectation of a positive outcome. To be hopeful is to be confident, to be optimistic. It is to desire a favorable event and believe in its likelihood. It is to see the possibilities for future change.

Charles R. Snyder, an American psychologist who specialized in the study of Positive Psychology, developed Hope Theory. For Snyder, three interrelated elements comprise the idea of hope: goals, pathways, and agency.

Hopeful people use different pathways to reach their goals. They are realistic about the challenges they face, motivated to overcome them. After training in Hope Theory, individuals develop practical plans, set deadlines, and visualize how they can succeed. 

Hope can be beneficial when it motivates people to be in the right mindset to achieve their goals. Even when negative situations happen, a hopeful person can examine what they can do and can’t do, before acting on what is possible.

Hope can be dangerous, however, when beliefs about positive outcomes are too unrealistic. People may imagine a perfect future, but if their thinking is deluded or fallacious, they will suffer when confronted with real barriers.

Pragmatic optimism, however, can often be valuable. Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic philosopher and author, once said in Eye in the Triangle: “Optimistic people outlive pessimistic people consistently if you compare them by sex, by eating habits, by diet, by lifestyle, by race, by all sorts of things. The optimists live longer. Also, optimists have more fun. And besides, maybe things are going to turn out okay, in which case, the pessimists are killing themselves and being miserable for no good reason at all. And the final reason is that if everything is going to turn out terribly, the optimists are having more fun before the final tragedy comes.”

Wilson wrote that optimists look for possibilities, while pessimists are blind to them. Pessimists have concluded that there are no more solutions, even when other options are present. For Robert Anton Wilson, intelligence is the ability to “receive, decode and transmit information efficiently.” To be stupid is to block information from coming in. Those who ignore, or resist, or deny the possibilities of life cannot function efficiently. They are stuck in robotic reality-tunnels.

Buddhists look at hope in another sense. People often strive to do more, to be more. They want to achieve, achieve, achieve. They believe that they will finally be happy only after they drive around in a fancy convertible, get promoted to office manager, marry, raise children, read the canon of Western literature, win a game, or whatever else they can think up. Once they get what they desire, they desire more, while fearing that they will lose what they have. As they possess more, they still feel unfulfilled. They’re often disappointed when what they strived for didn’t bring them lasting satisfaction.

Ordinary hope is unskillful. People crave what they do not have. They cling to abstractions of happiness, unable to let go. They expect to be a certain way, to produce a certain result, to maintain a certain persona, but are secretly afraid of uncertainty and impermanence.

For people to be honest with themselves, they must first be mindful of what they can and can’t change. For Oren Jay Sofer, author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, “The wisdom of equanimity understands that we choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. Both are beyond our control. What we can choose is how we relate, and how we respond.”

To accept what is happening in the present moment is to be alive. There is no denial, no resistance. Through awareness, people can transform themselves. They can look at the possibilities of their choices and how those choices will impact the world.

Those who practice the Dhamma are hopeful. They are confident that they are walking the path toward liberation. Rather than attaching themselves to dualistic ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure, they accept the fleeting nature of the world. They’re mindful of each moment, guided by wisdom and compassion.

In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

Those who endure hardships often find value in hope. Even when they are subject to abuse, injustice and death, they remember the small kindnesses of life. They desire a better future for themselves and those they care about. A path may not exist for them yet, but they believe that there is more, much more, than what is known.

Albert Camus, existentialist philosopher and author, wrote a book called The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. In it, he said that people look for purpose in an indifferent and chaotic universe. They’re often confronted with the absurdity of their own existence, desperate for an objective meaning that doesn’t exist.

They can choose to commit suicide, but then, the point of their lives would only seem more absurd. They can refuse to examine and question and think for themselves, conforming to different belief-systems, which promise them answers. Through this second choice, they are surrendering their inner freedom for the dictates of others.

Camus proposed a third option after not being able to accept the former two. People are free to subjectively create their own meanings and values and purposes. While they have the tremendous freedom to choose, they are ultimately responsible for their choices.

Camus rejected the idea that people should have hope for an afterlife, but considered each person’s meanings (or lack thereof) to be made by them in each moment. When people prepare for another life after their death, but do not embrace their fleeting time on earth, they minimize the value of their existence.

Hope should be highly personal for each individual. People cannot ignore the fact that they will change, that they will die, that they will pursue meaning in a universe, which is not objectively meaningful.

They must be aware of these underlying tensions. They must decide how they will live, who they will be, before they perish.

There is a close connection between hope and despair. When people avoid looking honestly at their suffering and seek only pleasure, they do not find happiness. Even those who have a lot of money and power are not immune. They can only transform themselves once they are aware of their suffering.

When people understand themselves as they are, they can cultivate compassion. Like a gardener, they can plant seeds of kindness, seeds of happiness, seeds of peace, in every moment. When they are compassionate toward themselves, they can be compassionate toward others.

Roshi Joan Halifax, hospice caregiver and Zen teacher and activist, wrote an essay called Yes We Can Have Hope. In it, she suggested that people can be wisely hopeful rather than unskillfully hopeful. Whereas ordinary hope is based on a person’s desires and expectations, wise hope develops from an acceptance of life.

Through this perspective, people can embrace the impermanence of their joys and sorrows. To be hopeful is not to deny reality, but to be fully alive, helping others to awaken out of their suffering.

Halifax said, “Wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them, addressing them, and remembering what else is present, like the shifts in our values that recognize and move us to address suffering right now.”

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote his own advice about acceptance and choice. He had told Lucilius, the then procurator of Italy, that people should adapt themselves to the present rather than projecting their wishes too far into the future. To live for the future is to be anxious in expectation. “Fear keeps pace with hope” because people not only want to fulfill their desires, but fear not getting what they desire, and losing what they have.

Seneca cautioned against having too many desires. When a person limits their desires, however, they can still be hopeful. They are grateful for what they have been given, and appreciate who they are, while not craving what is unnecessary. Many people wish for more than they have, worried that their expectations won’t be fulfilled. They “suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Potential dangers may not have happened, but they fear that they will happen. They anticipate terrible futures so much that their anticipations become habits. Their minds exaggerate their sorrows. Every moment that they worry is a moment of lost time.

Seneca wrote in his thirteenth letter, On Groundless Fears, “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”

Seneca advised that people should not worry about what hasn’t happened or will not likely happen. Misfortunes don’t always last or remain misfortunes. Sometimes the unexpected happens too. Rather than despairing, individuals can meditate on what choices are available and then act wisely. When people indulge their hearts on fears of the future, they prevent themselves from living.

The only way to live is in the present. Tomorrow has no meaning except in the eternal now. Pasts and futures are abstractions, but people are conditioned to live for conceptualizations of time, until they can’t relate anymore to the time they’re in.

In the Money and Materialism section of Just So, Alan Watts lectured, “So only people who live in proper relationship with the material present have any use for making any plans at all, because then if the plans work out, they’re actually capable of enjoying them. But if you aren’t fully here and your mind is always off somewhere else, you’ll remain starved and always rushing to get someplace else. And there’s nowhere to go except here.”

“Our schools don’t prepare us to relate to the material present. Instead, we’re educated to become bureaucrats, accountants, lawyers, and doctors, who are all good at making money, which is said to be incredibly important. And the children who aren’t considered fit for the college education that these careers require are encouraged to take reluctantly offered courses in trades and manual skills. You hear these jokes about being able to receive your bachelor’s degree in basket weaving from any American university, but that would actually be an improvement on our current state of affairs. The larger point is that we are encouraged to become obsessed with the life of abstractions, with problems of status, and with problems of the world as symbolized rather than the world to be symbolized. This explains our hang-ups when it comes to money. When it comes down to it, most of us are incapable of relating directly to physical existence at all.”

It is easy to mistake the finger for the moon. The finger may point the way, but it doesn’t cast an illumination. In order for life to reveal itself, people must let go of what they think they know. They can only tend to the future when they tend to each moment. While they may forget, their practice is to return to life, again and again.


Sources:

“Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. Vintage, 2012.

Halifax, Joan. “Yes, We Can Have Hope.” Lion’s Roar, 20 Jan. 2021, www.lionsroar.com/yes-we-can-have-hope/.

Hạnh, Nhất, and Thich N. Hanh. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Bantam, 1992.

“Hope (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/hope/.

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Penguin UK, 2004.

Snyder, C.R. Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Watts, Alan. Just So: Money, Materialism, and the Ineffable, Intelligent Universe. Sounds True, 2020.

Wilson, Robert A. “The Eye in the Triangle.” YouTube, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p5oHdKZNBA. Accessed 2021.

Yeshe, Ayya. “Ask the Teachers: What is the Buddhist View of Hope?” Lion’s Roar, 11 Aug. 2020, www.lionsroar.com/ask-the-teachers-what-is-the-buddhist-view-of-hope/.


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