Active Hope

We'll look today at some criticisms of the very idea of hope. Then we'll see what conception of hope might we might want to retain in the face of these legitimate criticisms.

Philosophers have tried their hand at clarifying what’s going on when we invoke this concept “hope.” We use the word in a lot of different ways. "Hope springs eternal," "A glimmer of hope," "Hope against hope," "Live in hope," "Keep your hopes up," "Raise – or dash -- someone's hopes." Philosophers aiming to elucidate “hope” generally take as their starting point the “standard account” of hope. They then proceed to either defend, amend, or urge a replacement to the standard account.

According to the standard account of hope: to hope that something means two things: It means to believe that the thing is possible, and it means to wish or desire the thing. If you believe it’s possible, and you wish or desire it, then you are hoping for it.

That’s fine as a starting point because it does capture the way the word is very frequently used. "I hope my lottery ticket wins." "I hope you recover quickly from your illness and feel better soon." "I hope the car will start after that very hard freeze it was out in last night." We use the word “hope” to express wishfulness – for something that could happen, however unlikely. (We have to add that it’s something that could happen. "Wish" might sometimes be for something impossible. Hence, we enjoy stories about magical geniis that can grant the impossible – but we wouldn’t say that we hoped for something that we acknowledged couldn’t happen.)

But there must be more to hope than wishfulness within the realm of the possible. If wishfulness were all there was to it, I don’t think hope would belong with the spiritual qualities like peace, faith, love, and joy. You’ve seen those banners – especially around Christmas season – that say: Faith, Hope, Joy, Love, Peace. For our closing hymn today, we will sing that there is more love somewhere, and then: more hope, more peace, and more joy. It wouldn’t really work to plug in “wishfulness” for “hope” in those contexts. In our opening hymn we sang, “I’ll bring you hope when hope is hard to find.” If we’d sung “I’d bring you wishfulness when wishfulness is hard to find,” that would have a rather different feel to it. Or suppose that in 1st Corinthians, Paul had written: “And now faith, wishfulness, and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” You’d be like: what’s wishfulness doing in there? No, the "standard account" fails to capture the spiritual significance of hope. There must be something more to hope than wishfulness, combined with belief in possibility. The standard account will do for a starting point, but it won’t do to leave it there.

Hope, on the standard account, might be escapism from reality, directing the mind to an imagined future when attention to the actual present might be more salutary. "Hoping" might be a euphemism for "in denial." Hope on the standard account is about wanting things to be different; spiritual wisdom is about loving what is.

The task of spirituality is, as psychiatrist M. Scott Peck put it, “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” Wishfulness, a retreat from present reality into some imagined future, is an obstacle to spirituality. One study has found that the chronically ill may be happier if they give up hope.
People who suffer with a chronic disability or illness may be happier if they give up hope that things will ever improve, suggests a small but intriguing study . . . Why? Because people don’t adapt well to situations they think are short lived, they hold out for something better, which can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. “Hope has a dark side,” says Peter Ubel, MD, one of the study’s authors. “It can make people put off getting on with their lives; in essence, it can get in the way of happiness.” For the study, researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Mellon University, followed 45 patients with new colostomies, meaning each patient had his/her colon removed and had to use an external pouch to contain bowel contents. At the time of the procedure, some were told their colostomy was reversible—that they would undergo a second surgery to reconnect their bowels in several months. Other patients were told their colostomy was permanent and that they would never regain normal bowel function. . . . Over the next 6 months, the participants filled out a series of surveys designed to measure their psychological well-being. In the end, those who didn’t hold out any hope for getting their colostomies reversed were happier than those who clung to the hope that they would some day be back to “normal.” About the upbeat group, Ubel says, “We think they were happier because they got on with their lives. They realized the cards they were dealt, and recognized that they had no other choice but to play those cards.” (Time, 2009 Nov 3 -- CLICK HERE.)
Debbie Hampton's blog asks: "What if it is the hoping that keeps us from finding peace and happiness?" She writes: “Immediately after, my sons went to live in a different state with their father, and, without a significant other, I was left alone. Life was very bleak and painful, at first. Over the years that followed, I learned to reframe my thoughts and to see my situation differently." By neither "dwelling on the negative thoughts," nor "hoping for something different," she continues, "I was able to drastically relieve the suffering and pain."
"Right smack dab in the middle of the muck and mire of life, even at its very worst, it is possible to find happiness and peace because these qualities are in your mind. They exist in your thoughts ABOUT what happens, not in the actual happenings. Happiness is not in hope. It is in your thoughts and actions." (Debbie Hampton, "The Dark Side of Hope" -- CLICK HERE.)
Psychotherapist Karen Krett has written a book, The Dark Side of Hope: A Psychological Investigation and Cultural Commentary. Hoping, Krett points out, can preclude genuinely useful steps toward getting much of what the person wants. (Krett's article-length reflection on the topic: CLICK HERE.)

Danielle LaPorte blogs, "give up hope." She suggests that we drop the word "hope" from our vocabulary. Instead of saying, for example, "I hope I'll get the job," she asks us to consider one of these alternatives:
“I really want to get the job.” (“Point taken,” says the Universe.)
“I’m praying to get that job.” (Prayer is an action too.)
“I have done all that I can do to get the job.” (Yes! Stand tall.)
“I will either get the job, or I won’t.” (Precisely. Now you can get on with your day.)
“I expect to end up with a job that I love.” (Excellent! Open-ended and affirmative!)
(Source: CLICK HERE)
The American writer Henry Miller (1891-1980):
“Hope is a bad thing. It means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is dead, if not all of you. It means that you entertain illusions. It's a sort of spiritual clap, I should say.”
Joanna Macy explains:
“Hope was a word that for years I didn’t use. I would say things like: Hope is a killer. Or: Hope distracts you from what you need to face. And look at the Buddha’s teachings; you don’t find hope in any of it. It takes you away from the present moment.”
Clearly, if “hope” is to be rescued – if we aren’t to give up hope on hope – something other than the standard account is called for. Hope – as a concept in Western cultures – is rooted in Christian theology. Let’s look back at that Christian idea and see if we can re-frame in a way that will work for us.

St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th-century spoke of hope and faith as related yet distinct in the way that the good and the true are related yet distinct. Per Aquinas, faith pertains to the true as hope pertains to the good. Specifically, faith relates to God as a source of truth, while hope relates to God as a source of goodness.

(Sidenote with regard to faith and truth: I’d say we’re not dealing here with the standards of truth with which scientists, historians, and criminal trial juries are concerned. We’re dealing with poetry – with the feeling of truth we get from a powerful poem that moves us see things in a new way. As I’ve said, theology is best understood as a kind of poetry. So faith is a way of relating to the ultimate through which we apprehend poetic, metaphorical truths.)

Hope, then, is a way of relating to the ultimate through which we apprehend a fundamental goodness of reality. Hope is one of the three theological virtues, the other two being faith and charity (love). Along with these three theological virtues, Catholic ethics also emphasized four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. As Aquinas explained it, what made hope, faith, and love theological, as opposed to cardinal, virtues was:
"First, because their object is God, inasmuch as they direct us aright to God; second, because they are infused in us by God alone; third, because these virtues are not made known to us, save by Divine revelation, contained in Holy Writ."
In this context, hope is the virtue that allows us to relate to God as a source of goodness who will provide for our needs and ultimately provide for eternal life, enabling us therefore to persevere through difficulties. From this theological conception of hope, the idea devolved in popular usage to mere wishfulness.

So: is there something in the original Christian theology about hope that we could tease loose from its Christian background and make use of? I believe that there is. Take this idea of the fundamental goodness of reality. What this comes down to, I would say, is that this life and this world can be meaningful.

To despair is to succumb to meaninglessness. Hope is the feeling, the attitude, that what we do, and this world in which we do it, means something. If you had a chance to read my column in this month’s issue of “Connecting,” then you saw how I invoke Vaclev Havel, who said:
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well – or even, I would add, the wish that that things will turn out in any particular way. Rather, hope is about meaning – about things making sense. Hopelessness, then, at its root, is a pervasive feeling that things – life, the world – don’t make sense.

Imagine trying to play a game with rules that are too complex to grasp and that change (or seem to) in unpredictable ways at random intervals. I wouldn’t see the sense in that game, and I’d pretty quickly give up. If, for some reason, I were obliged to stay at the table, I think I’d find myself just going through the motions, not really engaged. Now imagine that life generally felt like that: it just doesn’t make sense. That’s hopelessness.

When things – life, the world – make sense, then we know how to engage with them. We know how to play. We know how to form meaningful purposes and how to pursue them. We can persevere through difficulties. Whether our purpose is “realistic” or “ambitious” with miniscule odds of success, either way, our purposes give our life meaning. We can deal with steep odds if those odds make sense.

Failure, then, doesn’t deprive our efforts of meaning, for we understand the larger context in which our efforts had value: perhaps preparing the way for later success, or for others’ success, or just being a worthwhile experience. Indeed, hope is not about likelihood of “success,” but about having a sense that we know what we are doing, that we are engaged in something meaningful – i.e., something that makes sense.

Havel goes on to add:
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”
Hope: the ability to work for something because it is good – just because it is good, not because we have any expectations of future results.

With reality-grounded hope, we act here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have – without needing to know. Certainly, we never entirely let go of our attachments. We learn to hold them more lightly. When we do that -- when we loosen-up, a bit, the vice-like grip we habitually have on our attachments -- we are more open to the inexorable yet unpredictable flow of change: things passing from us and new things arising. We more readily adapt to whatever circumstances bring. And we’re more ready to respond in compassion -- because we aren’t clinging so hard to any reason not to.

When you love what is, you’re more ready to care for it -- while at the same time more flexible about what the outcome of your caring might look like. If working for change means having a very specific, detailed picture of what you want, then that’s not loving what is – it’s rejecting what is in favor of this other thing that you want in place of reality. Working for change doesn’t have to be that kind of attachment to a certain outcome. Working for change might instead be an open engagement that isn’t sure exactly what the outcome will be but works creatively with the situation to uncover possibly-surprising ways that needs can be better met.

Let’s call it closed hope when it’s an attachment to a specific outcome, when there’s demand energy, when center-stage is occupied by upset, blame, and judgment. Closed hope is a desire for change without accepting what is.

Call it open hope when it’s open-ended, reality-affirming, creatively transformative engagement for change that better meets needs without pre-commitments to any particular strategy for how that should happen. Open hope is engagement for change while at the same time letting go of attachment to results and fully embracing, loving, things just as they are. If you can imagine such engagement -- work and commitment yet without desires, motivated ultimately not by attachment to a specific outcome, but by the intention to express your true self in the world, trusting that manifesting your authentic caring self will be transformative in unpredictable ways beyond your control -- then you have imagined open hope.

Joanna Macy, whom I earlier cited as saying “Hope was a word that for years I didn’t use” – has come around to what she calls Active Hope – as opposed to the passive hope of mere wishfulness. It’s true, as the saying goes, that hope is not a plan. But despair is not a plan either. If we’re going to move forward, toward crafting a provisional plan and implementing it, then hope – the attitude that our purposes lend meaning to our lives – will be helpful.

Hope, Macy now says, is not something that you have; it’s something you do. Hope is a response to a calling you feel – a caring for our world. In Active Hope, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, the authors write:
Active Hope is not wishful thinking. "Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or some savior. Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world. The web of life is calling us forth at this time. We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part. With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store, strengths to discover, and comrades with whom to link arms. Active Hope is readiness to engage. Active Hope is readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others,... A readiness to discover the size and strengths of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love for life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead. None of these can be discovered in an armchair, or without risk.”
Macy and Johnstone describe a helpful continuous spiral, depicted here:
We may enter the spiral at any point, but if it’s not otherwise clear, then step in at the point of gratitude. Consciously articulate for what you are thankful. Writing it down helps cement gratitude as your anchor.

From there, is honoring our pain for the world. Face forthrightly and fully the harm. Reality, as I have said, is never depressing. Depression is a side-effect of attempts to turn away from reality.

With these two steps we are clearly closing the door on wishful escapism, but are grounding ourselves in the reality of both blessing and pain, of both the beauty and the tragedy. We may then see with new eyes, discerning afresh the task that this moment sets before us.

We may then go forth to engage that task. From the experience we find new bases for gratitude, and so continue on the spiral, each time around on a new plane. As Macy and Johnstone write:
“When we see what we love, it reminds us of what we act for. When we recognize the danger, it gives us a strong reason to wake up, show up, and play our part. What helps us face the mess we’re in… is the knowledge that each of us has something of great value to offer, a priceless role to play. In rising to the challenge of playing our best role, we discover something precious that both enriches our lives and adds to the healing of our world.”
May it be so. Amen.

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