Let’s turn Dante on his head. Hope isn’t abandoned at the entrance to hell, but at the entrance to paradise. I’m temped to say that I hope to convince you of this. Don’t want to descend into hell, though.
Hope has been much on my mind lately. Two climbers are still missing on Mt. Hood, fairly near to where I live. Today on cable news I heard more expressions of hope that they’ll be found alive, even though it’s increasingly likely that they won’t.
I’ve been trying to understand what grates on me every time somebody intones the platitude, “We’ve still got hope.” It’s like nails screeching on a blackboard. Yet the nails and the blackboard aren’t readily apparent to me. Hopefully (oops, there I go again) these musings will make me more aware of them.
I know that hope is close enough to faith to make my churchless soul wary of the sentiment. Wikipedia tells me that hope is an emotion while faith is a belief. And that hope often is the result of faith. Further:
The term false hope refers to a hope based entirely around a fantasy or an extremely unlikely outcome.
False hope seems to be what is flourishing both on the news channel airwaves and the slopes of Mt. Hood. I’m pretty sure it is being fertilized by the fervent Christianity of the climbers’ relatives. For acceptance of the saving power of Jesus requires blind faith. At this point, so does a belief that the climbers probably will be found alive.
Yesterday a relative of one of the climbers said at a news conference, after the body of Kelly James had been found, that they need even more prayers now. Double down, even when it’s evident you’ve got a losing hand. I thought, “What those guys need isn’t more prayers, but more searchers.”
So what’s up with this Christian god? He didn’t answer the prayers to save Kelly James. My bet is that he won’t save the other climbers either. Why, then, should anyone believe that he is going to save a soul after death? God sure doesn’t sound like he can be counted on.
Which brings me to another gripe about hope. It’s passive. Weak. Helpless. Not always, but generally. Paradoxically, however, hope also is a last-gasp attempt to control the uncontrollable when the limit of willful action has been reached.
Like I said before, most of the time I don’t hope for something. I just do it. Or embrace it. I don’t hope that I’ll take step after step. I simply walk. I don’t hope for air. I simply breathe. And even if I found myself in a small sealed chamber, it wouldn’t be hope that would bring me oxygen, it’d be either myself or someone else getting me out.
If I were asked to invest in a company led by a CEO who always talked about how he hoped to make a profit, I’d take my money elsewhere. How about a plan, dude? Similarly, a general who tells his troops “I’m hopeful that we’re going to win this battle” would sound wimpish and weak.
Last night my wife and I finally got around to decorating our artificial Christmas tree (yeah, I know; we live in the heart of Christmas tree growing country; but we’ve got our reasons for going unnatural).
Every year we struggle with the same four strands of lights. It’s our little tradition to fuss and bicker about how best to arrange three sets of “steadies” and one strand of “blinkies.” As the man of the house, I consider it my Tao-given duty to take charge of the lights. Plus, I’m taller than Laurel.
There we were, once again staring dumbstruck at the half-strung tree, wondering—indeed, hoping—that the lights would arrange themselves into their usual pleasing symmetry. Half-hearted suggestions passed back and forth between us.
Suddenly I saw the light. “This is what we need to do,” I told Laurel. With manly confidence I grabbed the blinkie strand, unwound it from the tree, and placed it on the lowest level of branches before circling higher. Perfect!
Hope? Who needs hope? Screw hope. Hope was what I felt in my condition of helplessness, when I was clueless about what to do. “Geez, I sure hope we figure out these lights soon, because I’d rather be watching TV.”
Thus hope is abandoned when what you’re close to, or on top of, what you’re hoping for. In the legend of Pandora, all of the world’s evils fly out of the box when it is opened except for Hope, which lay at the bottom. Well, what’s Hope doing in there with all those evils? Sort of implies that it has a kinship with the nasties.
In Alan Watts’ essay, “Birds in the Sky,” he speaks of what lies on the other side of hope.
To know that you can do nothing is the beginning. Lesson One is: “I give up.”
What happens now? You find yourself in what is perhaps a rather unfamiliar state of mind. Just watching. Not trying to get anything. Not expecting anything. Not hoping. Not seeking. Not trying to relax. Just watching, without purpose.
I should say nothing about what comes next. To hold out hope, to promise a result, spoils the whole thing. The final word must be, “There is no hope, no way.” Yet there is no harm in just one more word—one more word about what lies on the other side of despair, provided we all understand that this something on the other side of despair cannot be hoped for, and is in any way thrust away by hoping.
That’s a persuasive Zen argument against hope. But even better, in a different sort of way, is what I read today in Carolyn Hax’s “Tell Me About It” advice column.
Dear Carolyn: How can I walk away from a relationship that I’m not ready to let go of? I’m in a relationship where I’m not treated well. The guy hasn’t made me a priority in his life, and everyone tells me I need to walk away. The problem is that I am not ready to let go. I have that hope in my heart that we’ll work out, and I have absolutely no interest in meeting anyone else. Am I crazy for hanging on? –Starving for His Attention
Dear Starving: Certainly you’re going to let go only when you’re ready to, or when the drama supply dwindles, whichever comes first. If my calling you crazy will move things along, then, sure, I’m at your service. You know, to help. But I doubt it will.
What will help, I think, when it dawns on you, is that people can be busy; people can be slow to date, slow to trust, slow to find you physically attractive; people can be confused, distracted, scarred, grieving—all of them openings for optimistic projection.
But when they enjoy someone’s company, they seek it. Unless he’s transparently happy to see you, don’t weigh yourself down with hope.
So many people waste their lives waiting by the religious telephone for God to call. If he’s real, he’s got your number. If the phone never rings, dump that “hope he calls…” attitude. Find a better companion.