Doug Muder on Hope

Pandora trying to close the box that she had opened out of curiosity. At left, the evils of the world taunt her as they escape. The engraving is based on a painting by F. S. Church.

At times our light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
~ Albert Schweitzer

Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift that only we can give to one another. ~ Elie Wiesel

The retired mathematics professor Doug Muder writes a great political blog, The Weekly Sift. Recently he has addressed the question of hope, primarily in response to the political situation in America today. Here are brief summaries of his thoughts about hope.

In “Hope, True and False,” Muder writes that we often feel hopeless and helpless about, for example, political issues like gun violence or campaign finance reform. We don’t think we can win these battles, and we just give up. Muder points out that many struggles for justice initially appear hopeless, but that things change after people commit to changing them.

Such change is often aided by optimistic beliefs—that your god or your friends are on your side; that truth will eventually win out; or that there is moral progress. Such optimism often strengthens your resolve. And though you are often defeated, Muder recommends fighting for justice anyway. Our efforts express our nature and, if we have comrades in our struggles, so much the better. He concludes:

As I said before, that’s not a perfect answer. I don’t promise that it will hold up against every horrible series of events that could possibly happen to a person. But fortunately, none of us needs to stay strong through every horrible thing that could ever happen. Each of us only needs enough resilience to complete the journey of our own lifetime. So I want to close by wishing you good luck on that journey, and reminding you to take care of each other.

Summary – We should struggle for truth and justice because we might succeed, and we both express ourselves and enjoy an affinity with others when we work for justice. 

In “Season of Darkness, Season of Hope,” Muder begins by distinguishing hope from optimism. Muder defines optimism as “Believing that things will improve …” and its opposite, pessimism, as “the belief that things will get worse.” He then notes that “the opposite of hope is something far more devastating than pessimism, it’s despair. To be in despair is to believe that it’s useless to try, because your actions don’t matter.” And this leads him to conclude that: “Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Hope and despair are attitudes towards the present.”

For example, when thinking about a future exam, an optimist thinks she’ll probably pass while a pessimist thinks she’ll probably fail, but both take the exam. On the contrary, in the midst of despair a person won’t even take the test. After all, what’s the point if you are going to fail anyway? However, hope is the opposite:

Hope is that feeling deep within you that you are alive, and that in this particular time and place, the only thing you need to concern yourself with is what you do next. Hope means refusing to prejudge the situation, it means doing whatever you can think to do and then whatever happens will happen … [and] hope … focuses on those parts of the future that remain undetermined, and it says, “Let me see what I can do.”

So hope is about acting in the face of the unknown; about rejecting despair; about not giving up; about caring for justice and believing in the potential for human goodness. We can’t know if our actions will bring about a better world, and what we do will always seem inadequate, but, “Here, in a time of darkness, we choose to act, but we do not know what will come from that action. We cannot know. And so, we hope.”

Summary – Hope is an attitude, in the present, which rejects despair and encourages action. 

In “The Hope of a Humanist,” Muder wonders: What do we do when we lose hope?

In answer to this question, religion tells us to come back to god or believe in an afterlife, but these answers only work for the devout. Humanists might comfort themselves with a belief in progress, but we can’t be sure things will progress, or that our species will survive. And, even if the long-term trends are good, that provides little comfort now. So Muder rejects both a god and progress as reasons to be hopeful.

Why then be hopeful? “I see hope as an experience in the moment, the feeling that it is worthwhile to try. It’s worthwhile to get out of bed in the morning.” For Muder, hope expresses itself in the joy we take in doing things—like playing games or solving puzzles—even if they are objectively pointless. We do these things “just to experience the sense of striving, not to produce something for the future.” So he sees “hope as that pure feeling of let’s-do-this.” He concludes:

If you have had or are having a crisis of hope … Don’t get distracted into debates about optimism and pessimism. Some people believe in God and some don’t. Some people are optimists and some are pessimists. But any of them can learn to live hopefully in the present … it’s always better to live in hope than to live in despair.

Final Summary – We should struggle for truth and justice because we might succeed, and we both express ourselves and enjoy an affinity with others when we work for justice. Hope is an attitude which rejects despair, manifests itself in an active striving, and it is good for us. Muder’s ideas about hope closely correspond to those expressed in this previous post.

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