At the dawn of a new decade, as I find myself simultaneously reflecting backward and forward in time, the word which keeps repeating in my head is hope. Hope, a signature word for the Obama era, now seems woefully inadequate to the task ahead. We can’t hope our way out of the current polarization of America. And we can’t hope our way out of the pending climate apocalypse.
I have long puzzled over the myriad definitions of the word hope. The following is based on an essay about my musings that I left out of my upcoming book because I simply couldn’t come to a conclusion about my own definition. Yet my gut feeling was that while hope is an irrepressible part of many a human psyche, it is of faint consequence. Is hope a driver of change? It sure doesn’t look that way. Humor me while I pursue this line of thinking.
First, to explore the derivation of that word, I turn to that great resource, Etymology Online, which gives this derivation of the verb hope:
Old English hopian “have the theological virtue of Hope; hope for (salvation, mercy), trust in (God’s word),” also “to have trust, have confidence; assume confidently or trust” (that something is or will be so), a word of unknown origin.
To ‘assume confidently’ — this is not an active verb. And clearly, at this point few assumptions can logically be made. To have hope for salvation or mercy? That implies a figure or entity that can perform those functions. And what if that figure is a chimera, a complete fantasy, Oz himself?
When I Googled the word hope, the first entries were all from Christian sites, because for Christians, who refer to it a lot, hope seems to be an essential virtue. My idea of virtue is quite different, because it is an active principle and has nothing to do with hope. Here’s an excerpt from a long page of biblical definitions of hope, with references to passages in the bible:
Hope is a fundamental component of the life of the righteous (Proverbs).
Without hope, life loses its meaning (Lamentations).
The righteous who trust or put their hope in God will be helped (Psalms), and they will not be confounded, put to shame, or disappointed (Isaiah).
The righteous, who have this trustful hope in God, have a general confidence in God’s protection and help (Jeremiah) and are free from fear and anxiety (Psalms).
It is the future hope of the resurrection of the dead (Acts).
Love springs from hope (Colossians).
That is a serious laundry list getting washed and bleached by hope. Is the Christian sense of hope what keeps folks tied to the church — tied because expecting Christ or the Holy Ghost or God itself to come and deliver? What I’m not sure. What if the dead are all resurrected? What if they all turn out to be White Walkers, the zombie hordes in Game of Thrones?
As I wrote in an essay on hoping to find love: Hope seems like a cat looking out a window — hoping the bird will come to the sill. Even if that happens, if you, the cat, can’t get out of the house, you’ll never catch it anyhow. But I guess if you didn’t hope (which most likely includes you being let out into the garden) you would wind up lying around on the couch watching the tube for kicks instead, which must be the reason we all have hope — to keep us off the couch?
But seriously, to go back to Psalms, how many Christians are actually free from fear and anxiety? And I must object to the bit in Isaiah because I feel sort of righteous, in general, but I’m confounded on a daily basis by what is going on in this country. But maybe it is this very ambiguous, unquestioning sense of hope that keeps far right Christians wedded to our current president?
For Christians, hope appears to be a disposition or subset of faith — a concept which in my mind is different than hope. Faith has a more concrete aspect — that one believes, (despite appearances), even knows, that the best possible outcome will occur. Or, if one is a Christian, that God’s will (the best possible outcome) will become manifest, which aligns with the Christian sense of what hope is. In this case though, Hope is like a chick riding in a sidecar on a Harley driven by Faith who, like many Harley owners, might be a portly 60 year old with a ponytail.
But here is an analogous question regarding biblical truisms and hope: can anyone believe, in this age of outlandish predations by the world’s oligarchs, including our American ones, that the meek shall inherit the earth?
My remarks are not intended to dismiss Christianity. I can see how, back in the day, the religion was radical and alluring. This idea of transcendence, implicit in the Jesus story and the stories of all the saints — powerful and inspiring. It’s just that it all got garbled and institutionalized as the centuries wore on and other, arguably better, angles on the meaning of life appeared on the scene. The idea of Christian values, as actually incarnated by Jesus, were primal and constructive, as were the values of Mohammed. However these days, with religions of various sorts being weaponized for political purposes, it is clearly time for a new version of the transcendent, one that can be unbiased and intimate and open to all.
But let’s look again at that Lamentations line: “Without hope, life loses its meaning”. For me, life gains its meaning from our inhabiting it fully, from our discovering joy in the moment; from our sensory, emotional, and intellectual experience of the earth’s manifold splendors, whether it be human, animal, vegetable, or mineral. Life gains its meaning from our daily decision to spend our time on earth wisely.
Back to another of the Bible’s definitions, of hope as “confident expectation.” I disagree with that definition; hope is not confidence, which feels more solid, more muscular. Confidence is an active principle; it gives the possessor a sense of purpose and resolve. Of course hope can be seen as a survival mechanism, a reflex that keeps one keeping on, a compensating function meant to override the generally negative, fight or flight, disposition of the brain. I admit certain reflexes are useful but hardly worthy of the following assertion:
“Hope is a firm assurance regarding things that are unclear and unknown.” (Romans)
Now this is where it seems folks can ‘pin their hopes on’ things working out, and then go stick their heads in the sand. We all live with a certain amount of the unknown every waking moment but if we stop to consider the fact that now, on the brink of a new and dangerous decade, things are NOT unclear or unknown, hope would seem to have no major place. Hope requires no cognitive action, no logical analysis nor weighing of pros and cons, because if it did, many would lose all hope. There are those who conflate hope with optimism, but optimism is now considered a biologically induced cognitive trait. And most pundits these days do not even consider hope an emotion but rather a learned behavior established in early socialization. Hope as a habit? I believe we all know how easily the mind develops habits that are not exactly logical. Hope as a habit that allows us to deny it as such? Right – this is why, particularly at this point in time, I am not relying on hope to have a positive impact on the ongoing struggles of Sisyphus.
If I choose to carry on, despite warning signals blaring from every quadrant, despite icebergs the size of states detaching in Antartica, despite a man winding up as President who should more properly be left to rule a detached state of ice, it is not due to hope but to a conviction in my own power to act, to create change, and then due to my making a logical deduction that if I have that power, so do others. If I have a sense of what is right, so do others. To my mind, such a conviction, unlike hope, necessitates action.
I am not asserting that there is not, commingled with my conviction, a flickering sense of hope that, because humans have gotten this far, they may have the smarts to go a few more millennia. But that particle of hope is being increasingly outweighed by evidence that humans are a greedy lot and, because of that, have an implicit expiration date.
If there is a new watchword as we kick off 2020, it had better be a dynamic one which conjoins us to a future which we are not expecting to see magically materialize, but one which we desire and intend to create. How about engage?
HER ARGUMENT: Epiphanies, Theories, Confessions, available in paperback on Amazon February 3rd, 2020! Up for pre-order for Kindle et al, on January 20. Til then, read more about my book of essays here.