On the Question of Hope

cave-painting-betaI want to write about hope, about the nature of optimism and how closely linked the quality of imagination is to our ability to conceive of, work for and see through meaningful improvements to the human condition. I want to write about it because it is such a vital commodity in our times, such a spiritual enigma and a challenge to our political systems, but then one glaring fact becomes clear that seems to limit what can be said about hope: that vital spiritual resource does not stand alone, but is linked in every case to human specifics, inseparable from what we seek to apply to it, and so hope is different to all people, even in its most essential manifestations.

For some, hope is a question of finding belief, finding vision, finding willpower, in the abstract, in the nested particulars of inner life; for some, it is about what comes before finding, on the way to resolution or achievement, the summoning, the calling forth of energy and possibility; for others it is about what summoning does for the one who issues the call, how that act translates into hope. And still others find it to be the distilled question of will it or will it not work out: if so, then I can believe; if not, then all is lost and the human condition is hopeless.

It is easy to discourage those actively searchng for hope, because it is most necessary and most applicable precisely when events seem least hopeful, and because we forget, with equal parts frequency and convenience, that what has happened is not and never was the only thing that could have happened. We imagine that a negative result occurs because it was 100% likely to occur, even though a small amount of effort, concentrated or otherwise, may have made almost any other outcome more likely. We forget to examine the landscape and reformulate the potential enclosed in the unrealized past-future.

It is easy to say that all good things come to an end and that entropy is the basic direction of all things, simple or complex… but that reading really depends on timescales, metabolism and intent: all biological organisms, all solar systems, eventually break down, all concentrations of energy eventually come apart, but it is worth noting how successfully energy and matter first self-organize, how star systems and life forms first come together in astonishing utilitarian precision and complexity, with purpose and efficiency, each part playing a role that benefits other segments of the system so that the whole might exist at all.

Is that a tragic thing, or a stroke of incredible, incalculable good fortune? How can we who survive to speak, as cynically or hopefully as we see fit, not see some heartbreaking beauty in the functional fragility of what we are?

So, to write about hope is to write about the fact that it is a question and not an answer, that it cannot exist if not enmeshed with the specifics of what we suffer or strive for, that it springs from our recognizing that questions, obstacles and uncertainty are not dread irreparable crises but part of what brings forth the value of the good in life, that to face questions, to sink into doubt and to recoil against loss, is not to be lost, but to be involved in the same summoning of what comes next, that plays out in hoping.

Before entropy and disintegration, there was a healthy metabolism of self-organization, interstellar atomic elements coming together to make the soft tissue and the dreaming life of a human being, made from the inheritance of so many prior generations: why do we so easily forget how valuable that has been to us? Before admittedly taking the “wrong road”, there were right choices: why do we not go back and explore some of these, turn ourselves over to the fact that possibility does not cease altogether with a single mistake or an unwilled bad outcome?

Is it determinism, or a misapplication of religious spiritual traditions, that makes us believe that everything is pre-scripted, intended from a distant original urging, that we have no choice, that vision after-the-fact is somehow more divine than vision in-the-moment? The pressure to demonstrate control over events leads us to believe that it would be rational to claim control over events, and this can lead to a flawed application of the intellect to working out the problems at hand, undermining our agility and imagination instead of feeding into them.

Hope is not a mystical reality, not an elixir, not a character trait; it is a process of thinking toward, in living time, the ways in which what should be better might be. Hope is not a blind or blissed-out waiting-game for easy luck; it is a process of claiming responsibility for the energy and the material action that in often halting steps, in often turbulent surroundings, bring us closer to what we aspire to. Hope is not merely a solemn prayer for a best result when all factors of circumstance are beyond our control; it is overcoming the problem of control, robbing Fate of its false power and starting from the place where you are.

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