The Ground of Hope

“Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
- Radio DJ Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off

Hope can go bad. We can use hope to evade reality and escape into rosy fantasies. In the name of hope, people may dwell in a hoped-for future rather than living in the present.

Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s very useful book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, gives many examples from his patients where evil and mental illness blur together. The evil/ill patients he discusses share a habit of attacking others instead of facing their own failures. When things go well, it’s just what they deserved; when things go badly, it’s always someone else’s fault. By contrast, an ideal of mental health would be just the opposite: when things go well, the healthy think with gratitude of all the others who made their success possible, and when things go badly, they examine what they might have done differently. Peck then defines mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” The evil/ill tendency to blame others and credit the self is a refusal to face reality. The evil/ill prefer the comforts of the illusion of blameless virtue and undeserved victimhood to “a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination and honesty with oneself” (Peck).

When hope goes bad, it turns into the enemy of reality, honesty, truth. It beckons us to retreat into pleasant illusions of an imagined future – or succumb to temptations of visions in which other people have finally wised up and stopped standing in our righteous way.

When hope is ungrounded, it is merely another name for fear. What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. This kind of hope is no more than fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become. "I hope the bill passes," or "I hope I get the promotion" is not substantively different from "I'm afraid of the bill not passing," and "I'm afraid of not getting the promotion."

There is surely a place and a need for hopeful visions of a better future – for powerful dreams such as Martin Luther King’s. (There's a place and need for fear, too.) Hope, by its nature, wants to reach for the stars. To keep hope from going bad -- to hope within the context of "dedication to reality at all costs" -- we must also plant its feet in the ground of love of reality. Hope’s grounding lies in making peace with the possibility that the future may not be different in any particular way that you or I would call “better.”

Hope’s grounding is action taken here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. Hope is grounded in what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. Grounded hope reminds us to hold our visions lightly, for they are projections of our ego needs, and the best of them can become despotic and demonic. A grounded activist knows, “I do this not to make the world different. I do this to be who I am.” When our hope is grounded in loving what is, we can be courageous, we can join the resistance (to injustice, oppression, sources of violence) with our hearts and our breath and our being, comfortable that we cannot predict what will come of it. Hope’s grounding lies in listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go of attachment to outcomes.

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