Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope … is not the same as joy that things are going well … but rather an ability to work for something because it is good. ~ Vaclav Havel
(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 27, 2017.)
Optimism As an Expectation About the Future
I begin by considering optimism, a closely related concept of hope. The American Heritage Dictionary defines optimism as: “A tendency to expect the best possible outcome …” Optimists believe that things will improve, while pessimists believe that things will get worse. So optimism is a dispositional attitude which reflects an expectation that future conditions will work out for the best. I reject such optimism because I don’t expect good outcomes, or believe that things will get better in the future.
Optimism As an Attitude in the Present Moment
The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers another meaning of optimism: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events …” So optimism in this sense refers, not to expectations about the future, but to an attitude that we have in the present. This is the kind of optimism that sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, or looks on the bright side of life. Optimism as a positive attitude is generally beneficial—you tend to be happier seeing your glass half full—while expectations for the future set us up for disappointment. I recommend this attitudinal optimism, as long as it excludes expectations.
Hope As an Expectation About the Future
The American Heritage Dictionary also includes this definition of hope: “To wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment. To look forward to with confidence or expectation.” Here again is the emphasis on future expectations. And I reject such hope because I don’t expect or anticipate that my wishes will come true.
Hope As an Attitude in the Present Moment That Motivates Action
But hope can also refer to an attitude we have in the present; a kind of hope illuminated by contrasting it with its opposite—despair. When I despair I no longer care; I just give up. When I despair, I give up because my actions feel like they don’t matter. Why take the test if I’m sure I’m going to fail? Why play the match if I’m sure I’m going to lose? Why fight for truth and justice if they can’t be realized?
But hope is the opposite. Hope entails caring, acting, and striving. To hope is to reject despair—to care although it might not matter; to act in the face of the unknown; to express fidelity to our comrades; and to not give up. I don’t know if my actions will improve my life or better the world, but I can choose to hope, care, act, and strive without expecting success. So this hope isn’t about future expectations; it’s an attitude which informs my present. And it’s not about resignation or acceptance. Instead, hope is the wellspring for the cares and concerns which manifest themselves in action.
Another thing about this attitudinal hope I adopt in the present is that it is more likely to be in my control than future outcomes. Still, I reject hopeful expectations not just because the future is out of our control, but also because I can’t intellectually justify my hope that life has meaning, that justice will triumph, and all the rest.
Hope Is an Attitude That Makes My Life Better
But what is the point of all this hoping, caring, acting, and striving if we don’t know if we will succeed? One answer is that an attitude of hoping and caring that leads to action is inherently good. Consider the joy we take in playing games, solving puzzles, or writing blog posts, even if such actions may be objectively pointless. Such actions are a form of playing. And we often do these things, not for any future rewards, but because we want to, as we find doing them fulfilling.
But devoid of hope, in the grip of despair, we wouldn’t even try to play the game or solve the puzzle or write the blog, and we would miss the inherent joy such actions might bring. Moreover, if I despair, I won’t enjoy my life as much as if I had adopted a hopeful attitude. So there is also a pragmatic reason for adopting a hopeful attitude—it makes my life go better; it helps me live well; it makes me happier.
Attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair and leads to caring and acting. I adopt attitudinal hopefulness because it spurs action and makes my life better. I recommend such hope.
Hope As Wishing Without Expectations
Yet hope is more than simply an attitude we adopt in the present; hope also entails having certain desires, dreams, wants, or wishes for the future. Now I have already rejected such hopes if they include the idea of expectations. But I can have hopes, desires, dreams, wishes, or wants without any sense that they will be fulfilled. And in that sense, there is nothing intellectually objectionable about having hopes and dreams—so long as there is a realistic possibility that they can be fulfilled. However, this hopeful wishing is not faith. I don’t believe or expect that my wishes will come true, although I imagine that they could.
Hope As Wishing Leads to Action
Attitudinal hope in the present moment rejects despair, makes our lives better, and spurs action. But so too can hope—as wishing without expectation—motivate action. Wishful hoping provides the impetus for acting to fulfill those hopes, which in turn makes the fulfillment of those hopes more likely.
This connection between hopeful wishing and action is easy to see. For example, suppose I hope to be a lawyer. If for some reason this is impossible, then it is counter-productive to have this false hope. But if nothing prevents me from becoming a lawyer, then the desire to be one motivates me to act toward that end. So hoping like this is not a false hope, as long as my hopes are realistic. In short, my hopes and dreams give me reasons to act.
Wishful hopefulness also rejects despair and motivates action. I recommend this hope.
What Do I Hope For?
I can only answer this for myself. I hope, want, wish, desire, and dream that my life and universal life are meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be made better. In short, I hope that somehow it all makes sense, even though philosophical nihilism constantly beckons.
What Is the Source of This Hope?
I don’t know the sources of these hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable fervency. To best explain, I must wax poetically. Perhaps the source of these hopes is some cosmic longing within me, or perhaps what I call me is just misnomer for the longing of some cosmic consciousness. Perhaps, as the French existentialist Gabriel Marcel put it, “Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me.”1
These poetic descriptions are a bit metaphysically speculative for my tastes. I’d say this hoping emanates from biological and cultural sources. Our biological drives to survive and reproduce, combined with the emergence of consciousness and culture, steer us toward hoping and acting. Having hope benefitted our ancestors, made their lives go better, and aided their survival. Marcel’s mysterious principle probably corresponds to the scientific idea that order emerges out of chaos, as organisms dissipate their disorder into the external environment. And this means that our species may become more hopeful.
Still, any of us can lose our hopeful attitude; we can give in to despair. And that’s because hope and despair exist in a dialectical relationship. We can respond to despair with hope, and within hope there is always the possibility of despair. To despair is to say there is nothing worthwhile in the world; to hope is to affirm that your concerns, your actions, your love, and your life, all matter.
Still it is easy from the safety of my study, with an adequate supply of life’s necessities, to opine about the value of hope. No doubt some people are in hopeless situations. Perhaps they are starving, or in endless pain, or in solitary confinement. For them hope is no salve, and their lives possibly pointless. These hopeless situations should make us all weep.
But notice what hope recommends, at least for those of us lucky enough to have our basic needs met. We are called upon to forgo acceptance and resignation, and to try to improve the world. Be sympathetic, but also act! We may not succeed, but we can try. For hope is better than despair. And even if we all ultimately face the abyss, we can meet it no better.
Hope is an attitude of caring, of concern, of acting, of trying, of striving. We adopt attitudinal hopefulness because it is part of our nature, it spurs action, and it makes our lives better. Wishful hopefulness, wishing without expectations, also emanates from our nature, rejecting despair and motivating action.
I chose to adopt a hopeful attitude and maintain my hopeful dreams because it makes my life go better, and might help the world as well. I don’t know if life is meaningful, or if truth, beauty, goodness or justice matter. I don’t know if there is any recompense for my efforts or the suffering that surrounds me. I don’t know if anything matters at all. I’m neither an optimist or a pessimist. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least in my current situation. Thus I still have hope.
I conclude with a famous passage about hope from William James‘ essay, “The Will To Believe.” I first encountered it more than 40 years ago, and it still moves me:
We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.2
1. The Philosophy of Existentialism. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995) 28.
2. William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2000), x.