The capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reigns supreme.
— Spe Salvi
Every day we choose hope or despair.
If we choose hope, even if the world has seemingly arrayed itself against us, we see the possibility of a new arrangement, of a path forward, of a solution, of a way of making things better, of making them how they are meant to be, of a hope for a better world.
If we choose despair, all becomes silence and shadow. The world is at war with us and we are at war with the world. Even if there seems to be sunlight, we turn away, preferring the darkness of our despair, lamenting and wailing and grinding our teeth at the insurmountable injustice of it all and how powerless we are and how nothing is ever going to get better and why bother anyway.
This is a choice.
This choice is not easy. It is tempting to slide into a comfortable sort of despair, an ironic dystopia, a happy sort of sadness. That is often easier on the will than it is to choose hope. This comfortable slide can be a difficult habit to break.
For it is easier to believe that we can’t change the world. That everything is going to hell in a hand basket and we might as well enjoy the ride. That there’s no point in grit, in trying, in struggle, in striving. It’s all ending badly anyway, so who cares? That job, that significant other, that dream, that passion — never going to happen. Not worth even trying to make it happen because it isn’t going to.
But, and here’s the thing: we don’t know that. None of us can foresee what the world will look like in ten years, in five years, in a year, in month, or really, if you stop and think about it, in a day or an hour. No one knows. We’re all guessing, some of us with very educated guesses indeed, but in the end that’s all they are: guesses from the gallery. People watching.
We don’t know that there’s no point in grit, in trying, in struggle, in striving. That’s the allure of despair. To absolve ourselves of the effort of will entailed in holding fragile hope in our hands and sheltering that hope against a world bent on shattering it.
But if we don’t know, then why not hope? If we don’t know what the future holds, why not hope that the future holds the best? That that which lies ahead, can, with our diligent effort and judicious striving, truly bend the arc of history toward justice. One tiny step at a time.
That, ultimately, is a choice we can make.
We choose the lens with which we view the world.
To look at the world through the lens of the hope is to see the best the world can offer, to assume the best out of our fellow human beings (appropriately calibrated based on the evidence presented to us).
To look at the world through the lens of despair is to do the opposite: to assume the worst, and to cling to it, sometimes even if evidence seemingly presents an alternative.
It can be difficult to change our lenses, especially if we’ve been wearing them for a while. Despair can even be a sort of defense. At least if we don’t care, we can’t be hurt because we’ve already given up.
But, if our quest is to live a happy, fulfilling, flourishing life, we must put on hope.
Hope is not naïveté. It is not weakness or foolishness. It is strength, the deep strength of a running river. Resolute, persistent, firm, free. The river flows toward the sea. It hopes for the sea. It is not at the sea, not yet. But it will be. It is firm in its hope.
Of course, the river doesn’t know what the sea is exactly, as it’s never been to the sea. Nor does it know the path to the sea. Or the obstacles that are in the way. But it is firm in its hope, and that is enough to begin its journey.
Sometimes the river bends, because the landscape bends. Sometimes the river leaps from a height and makes a waterfall. If the light catches it just right, there might even be a rainbow. Always the river adapts to the terrain; it flows onward, ever onward, flowing with hope.
So must we be.
This is not easy.
Often, in a bad situation, events are outside our immediate control — all we have left to control is how we react: the lens we view the situation with. We can choose hope or despair, and, in the short term, that choice doesn’t seem to matter: events are not in our hands. We’re not in control.
But, in the course of time, as we react and as the events and relationships around us change (for human societies are, first and foremost, dynamic systems), the lens we wear — hope or despair — matters more and more. Countless little decisions add up and choices made start to matter, in aggregate. Tiny steps, one after another.
This is why matters of hope can almost seem like a tidal wave. Nothing happens, and then a whole lot of something happens all at once. But the happening goes on beneath the surface — it just takes a while to percolate. The wave builds.
Those long, seemingly endless moments can be hard to endure, but therein lies the virtue of hope.
It is precisely those moments that train us in the way of hope. It is there that we must choose hope, again, and again, and again. Moment after moment. Doing reps with hope, if you will. Making hope a muscle memory of the brain. An automatic response of the soul. An instinct of the intellect.
For the way of hope is the path before us if we wish to live lives of happiness, lives of human flourishing. For by embracing hope we can aspire to become the best versions of ourselves. The loving, caring, gracious, wonderful people each and every one of us can be. But this is a process, a striving, a journey.
It is decidedly not instant.
It begins with those moments, those little decisions, those tiny steps. There, in the vacillation — that fateful moment of choice—that dancing on the edge of despair within our minds, looking down into the abyss… And turning away. In choosing. In saying, no, I shall not despair. I choose to hope. I hope for Something Better. I do not know exactly what it will be and I have no expectations as to when or how it will arrive. But I begin to hope.
And then again, when the next moment comes and despair darkens the horizon and a little decision must be made, a tiny step taken. Hope.
And again: Hope.
Like a river, flowing to the sea, meandering through valleys, hurrying through rapids, leaping off waterfalls, making rainbows. Flowing with hope.
And again: Hope.
Thanks to Neil Tambe for asking the right question at the right time.