Where there is life is hope, they say. But where there is life, there is also hopelessness. And despair. And cynicism. And wishful thinking, that meaningless hope that will never come true.
I have always found hope a difficult concept. Elusive. Fragile. When someone tells me not to give up hope, I always think, “OK, but how?” And what exactly is hope? You think you know what it is until you try to explain it, then it turns out to be quite a complicated concept.
I think the Czech writer and politician Václav Havel comes quite close to a striking description of what hope is. Hope, he says, is “an orientation. A state of mind, not a state of the world. ” Hope is not something tangible, it is an inner state of mind. A state of mind that is not based on what is, on facts and circumstances. “A state of mind despite the state of the world,” I would say.
Hope is about the future, about a better future. And we all have our wishes, ideas and expectations about that future. Both with regard to our own personal future and the world at large. Of some wishes we are quite sure that they will come true, everything points in that direction; those are our expectations. About other wishes we are a little less sure, but the facts and circumstances look good, so we have confidence.
Hoping for a better future, hoping that our wishes will come true, is the most uncertain form of looking at the future. You could say that hope floats somewhere between wish and expectation; hoping is to have some confidence even if there is actually no reason to have confidence.
Hope is therefore different from optimism. An optimist assumes that things will work out alright; someone who hopes assumes things may work out, but does not just assume they will. So it’s a rather uncertain, unsteady state. But one with a positive undertone, in the words of the American writer Rebecca Solnit: “You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”
Hope is the opposite of both hopelessness and despair. Hopelessness is the absence of hope. Those who feel hopeless have lost confidence that their desired future will become a reality. The (negative) expectation has defeated the wish. They have given up. Despair is also the absence of hope, but without surrendering. Those who despair also have lost confidence that their desired future will become a reality, but nevertheless hold on to it. Wish and expectation clash. Those who despair, struggle and are unable to do what they want to do, achieve what they want to achieve. Powerlessness leads to despair.
Hope is also the opposite of fear. Where hope is always about something positive, fear always refers to something negative. We know that fear makes for a poor advisor; basing your actions on what you fear is usually not a very fruitful idea. Hope ensures that you focus on a positive outcome. Hope is somewhere between what we wish will happen and what we fear might happen.
Hope is therefore one of the ingredients you need to feel somewhat positive and cheerful. In fact, hope is essential. If you have no hope (anymore), no faith and confidence whatsoever that what you do will lead to something or that things will get better, why would you do anything at all? Life without hope is empty and gloomy, nothing makes sense anymore. Hope keeps you going, as it were; whoever gives up hope falls silent. Without hope you become apathetic.
OK, so now we know what hope is and why it is important, but we don’t yet have an answer to the question “how?” Because it can be damn difficult sometimes to keep hope. Whether it’s on a personal level or about major developments in the world at large, it is not surprising if you sometimes wonder whether hoping for a better future is not just plain naive.
Where hope seems to be lost, cynicism lurks. Especially for those, like me, who are used to thinking critically. Critical thinking and hope seem to be opposites. “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté,” says Bulgarian-American writer Maria Popova. Finding the balance between critical thinking and hope is “a difficult dance,” she rightly says. But we have to, because as I said, whoever gives up hope surrenders to cynicism, and cynicism kills all hope. It is a “closed-door policy”, as the American philosopher Robert Solomon calls it.
Hope, as Rebecca Solnit pointed out, keeps the door to the future open. That way, hope can empower you to get through tough times. To keep going if things aren’t going that well and you feel down. In order not to get stuck in negativity. You could say that we are confronted with hope when we are on the verge of losing it. The moment we are about to give up hope. The more difficult the situation we are in, or the more difficult it is to achieve our desired future, the more is required of our hope.
But hope, whichever way you look at it, is a shaky foundation. You hold onto something that actually offers little to hold on to. “It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons,” says Václav Havel. And that makes it so intangible. I therefore think that, in order not to fall into apathy or cynicism, hope is not enough.
The first thing you need besides hope is perspective. You can hope that something will happen or that the situation will improve, but if that never happens, your hope will diminish and eventually disappear. You cannot keep hoping and have confidence indefinitely without at least something coming true. You need something to look forward to. Something that is concrete enough, that is achievable, somewhat within reach – or at least within sight. Something that you know can happen and will give you pleasure or satisfaction, even if the desired better future will not be realized.
Hope is what drives you when that perspective is lacking. If, as I said earlier, the facts and circumstances do not point to that better future. So you cannot do without hope, but in the end you cannot do without perspective either, the prospect that the situation will improve, that in the (near) future fun, nice, valuable things are bound to happen, that the things you do will help make your life (and that of others) a bit more meaningful and enjoyable.
Without that perspective, hope eventually fades away. Hopelessness is perspectivelessness. Hope is “anchored beyond the horizon” says Havel, but if a viable perspective never appears on that horizon, hope is ultimately no more than a mirage. In the long run, you don’t know how things will go. And there is so much that is beyond your sphere of influence. But in the short term you can set your concrete goals, so that you can take small steps that are concrete enough to offer you more than the fragile grip that just hope offers.
And with that I automatically come to the second thing you need: courage. Courage to continue even if there is no concrete perspective for a while. In order not to let cynicism win and to stick to the idea that things may get better. To hold on to your wishes and ideals, to swim against the current. The situation is uncertain, but “with openings”, Solnit says. Whoever hopes holds on to those openings, that possibility without certainty, and from that takes the courage to continue.
Hope gives you the strength, according to Havel, “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” Hope does not remove the uncertainty, Rebecca Solnit says as well: “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed.” And in that possibility, according to Solnit, there is room for action: “When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes.”
Hope, perspective and courage. Those three together, interconnected and influencing each other, can inspire, motivate and stimulate you to get (and keep) moving. To live, to try new things, to take on challenges. Hope that a better future is possible, the courage to act on that and perspective to make it concrete enough. All based on, as Solnit says, “the belief that what we do matters.”