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.
I'm finally going to concede to the truth, Brian Hines, you are definitely hopeless! :-)
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | December 19, 2006 at 02:58 PM
Marcel, you've made my day. What a distinction! I hadn't thought of myself that way, but it's beautiful. I'll walk prouder on the dog walk I'm about to take. Or rather, that Serena is about to take me on.
Posted by: Brian | December 19, 2006 at 03:58 PM
Brian I in in agreement.
Giving up hope is a sign of genuine progress. Only when you finally let go of your last lingering strands of attachment of hope can you finally move on to a new cycle of growth. You accept the facts, and only then can you begin a new cycle of growth. That is when the miracles occur.
I once had a job and my boss was demanding the impossible and making my life miserable. But I had hope that he would change when he saw that I was making good progress. However, after a year or so of misery I gave up hope and resigned even though I had no new job to go to and had 5 hungry kids to support. Shortly thereafter I received a call from another manager who had heard of my resignation. He had wanted me to come work for him on a new exciting project, but was unable to ask me until I had given up hope and made myself available. Suddenly I went from hopelessness to a new cycle of growth. My life went from misery to joy. All because I had been honest with myself and given up hope
Posted by: ET | December 20, 2006 at 01:40 AM
“When love is gone, there’s always justice.
And when justice is gone, there’s always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom.
Laurie Anderson, “O Superman”
Dante spent his early adulthood and over two decades pining for a woman he never met. He then wrote an opus castigating and punishing every member of his society and the machine of his culture for the sin of keeping him from realizing a dream. He was pissed off, knew what he had written was tough stuff, and gamely warned all his readers that he had absolutely no pity left, after having spent it all on himself.
Beatrice dodged that bullet.
And how exactly did Watts explain to his family that he was leaving the Anglican Church, and England proper, to pursue mysticism? By rationalizing to them that there was, after all, no emotion involved, Mummy. Including hope, which by all means will not be found in greener pastures? Having read Humphreys, I know that little Alan was introduced to the idea of compassion.
Compassion was the pulse in the heart of my last comment. Like any other appropriately functioning emotion, hope is not a tool to be employed like a maul, any more than anger or joy. Dante, Watts, and any lost climbers’ family will have a stew of feelings, and hope has a “kinship with these nasties.”
Enlightenment sought precludes hope, since we haven’t been enlightened before and have no idea what it will look like. Hope will form an expectation, as will fear, or pride. Whatever you own, give it all away. Oh, yes, all. But look well, the central Buddhist precept is not detachment, it is compassion. When we apprehend suffering as the condition of being in this world, the world gives us hope as the means of realizing there is no separation among the ten-thousand things.
Death will detach you well and goodly. No need to practice. So the world’s religions and philosophies shift the deadline, playing accounting games. Is it enlightenment, or heaven, the city on the hill, or the garden? These are head games, when there is another group of friends, gathered at the outfitters, planning their ascent of Mt. Hood. They don’t need to hope, the will do this like walking a dog.
Posted by: Edward | December 20, 2006 at 05:05 AM
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | December 20, 2006 at 08:29 AM
Marcel, I agree. Hopelessness isn't for kids. Children believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, monsters who live under their bed.
We adults have similar fantasies. That's part of being human: our ability to construct alternative realities in our mind. This includes envisioning a future.
Hope is part and parcel of our consciousness. As I type a word, there's an expectation that I'll be able to type another. And another. But this is a minimal sort of hope, a small projection of what is now into what will be.
What I've been talking about in my mini-post series on hope is something other than what children or us childlike adults are capable of. It's what sages, mystics, seers, saints tell us is possible.
To be in touch with reality as it is, not as how we'd like it to be. Now, I have no idea what "as it is" means. I just am confident that I can get closer to it than I am now. This doesn't feel like hope to me; it's more like hunger--a hunger for the truth that I'm not yet able to taste.
I have a lot of sympathy for human weaknesses and frailties, because I'm a weak and frail human. I understand why people pray and hope for a miracle. I might do so myself when pressed to the limit.
And yet...I believe there is more to life than what we consider "normality." It's normal to hope. But is this the height to which we should aspire? I think it's possible to climb higher, beyond hope, to another way of seeing.
I hope this isn't just a hope.
Posted by: Brian | December 20, 2006 at 10:24 AM
Hello. Would you be interested in contributing to this?
Posted by: ₣łaѕђсaτ | December 20, 2006 at 11:26 AM
Oops! Well, I hope that link works. :)
Posted by: ₣łaѕђсaτ | December 20, 2006 at 11:28 AM
Behold! A Christmas miracle. A Virgin birth. A child in Bethleham is born. Actually, a Kimodo dragon in London, but as we have been told, the Lord works in mysterious ways. http://edition.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/europe/12/20/uk.komodo.reut/index.html?eref=rss_topstories
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | December 20, 2006 at 01:22 PM
I really like your thinking here, Brian.
Posted by: Dave | December 20, 2006 at 04:35 PM
And you quote Carolyn, who I consider breathtakingly wise. I really would prefer that a few people in my life, who hope I will be what I am not, would let the hope fall away.
And thank you, I always suspected the Pandora story had a hole, just couldn't quite find what was wrong with it. I think you have it nailed.
Posted by: zhoen | December 21, 2006 at 04:14 PM
this post is amazing. thank you. i need to save it so i can reread it several times.
Posted by: becky | December 24, 2006 at 08:18 PM