Is Hope Really All That Necessary?

Black and white image of stop sign reads Don't STOP Believing

“A message of hope.” I read this in headlines about the Pope’s recent visit.

It made me think: How valuable is hope, really?

I know that the absence of hope is a terrible thing. People become unhappy, full of despair and misery without hope.

But is the absence of hope the cause of the problem, or merely the symptom?

It seems that by making hope the essential goal to go after, we end up getting disappointed again and again. What does the Pope really have to offer? Faith in an afterlife? How can we be certain there is such an afterlife? Giving up and sacrificing, for the sake of some purely faith-based, arbitrarily conceived supernatural level of existence for all of eternity? What does that even mean? What does it have to do with this life, or anything?

Ditto for the “hope” peddlers in the more secular realm. Hitler claimed to offer hope to the outcast German people after World War I. Marx offered hope in the future; never in the present. How well did those approaches work out? In our time and country, our current president promised “hope and change.” More than half the population fell for it. How well is that working out? I have not seen any renaissance in the mental health of Americans 7 years after the man some thought could almost move oceans got elected as the world’s most prominent politician. It seems politicians cannot give us hope either, not even the “cool” ones.

Of course, when Nazi Germany or Communism or even Barack Obama got started, a lot of people did feel hopeful at first. This is because hope was an end in itself, rather than the product of something real, something actual, something (dare I say it?) earned.

Maybe we have to work for our hope? Maybe it has to come from our own minds and efforts, and not some real or imagined external authority figure keeping a promise to give us hope for free?

It’s the same on the individual level. “Have hope,” we tell ourselves, or our dispirited loved ones – perhaps because we have nothing else to say. We wait, wish, live and even hope for hope … it’s a totally passive endeavor!

It seems to me that hope is, at worst, an unnecessary or even harmful distraction from what’s really important; and, at best, a byproduct of something else.

Productivity, self-fulfillment, self-esteem. These are things I can see getting excited about. Granted, they’re often vague “floating abstractions.” It’s not always clear what they mean, how to apply them personally, or what they will mean once we have them.

But at least you can put productivity to the test. You can go after some goal to give your life some purpose, in hopes of making it better. There it is. You go after something and in the process have something to hope for; by striving to gain and/or keep something, you develop hope.

Once you achieve something on your own, something that you had given up hope on, or perhaps never knew or believed you could accomplish, you start to feel something we might call self-esteem. Or confidence. Or purpose. Suddenly, these things are no longer floating abstractions. They’re real, they’re here-and-now, and they’re being created by you. You don’t need a pope, a president, an invisible omnipotent friend, or some romanticized collective (embodied by “society” or government) to save you. You have yourself; and you always did.

As a therapist, I have encountered a lot of people looking for hope. In graduate school a therapist told me, “The most important thing you can ever do for a person is give him or her hope.” But too often people seek hope without an eye towards productive purpose. They keep coming up empty, which makes them feel even more hopeless. It’s kind of like they’re seeking something for nothing, without even knowing it.

It seems that the only way to break this hopeless cycle is to develop a sense of tangible purpose. It can be something small, even very concrete, to start.

Much has been written about how it’s the advanced and well off societies that seem to lack in hope the most. Peddlers of religion claim it’s a lack of faith based belief; peddlers of socialism and other forms of social control contend that it’s a lack of government or “collective purpose” of some kind. (Representatives of both groups are currently running for president; that’s all we ever seem to have.) Of course, neither of these — government-directed purpose or religion — lead to much of anything in the long-run or short-run, and much more often they lead to bloodshed, misery, destruction, murder and despair … not exactly hopeful qualities.

Being poor and miserable is not the answer. I’m not suggesting that. I want people to get healthier, happier, richer, more prosperous, and more comfortable. In the words of a Woody Allen character, if it’s a choice between the Pope and air conditioning … I’ll take air conditioning!

Poverty sucks, and material comfort rules. (The Pope knows this, because he lives in splendor. So does Obama, and so did the anti-materialistic Communist rulers.) But the fact that so many people who are better off are among the most neurotic and hopeless/depressed, tells you something. It tells you that human beings, no matter what their age, situation, or capability have one thing in common: They need a rational purpose.

Survival is one kind of purpose. But beyond subsistence and survival, there’s so much more. More than our present minds can even begin to comprehend.

Hope for the human race and for each of us as individuals is more immense and promising than probably any of us knows. There’s nothing mystical about it. If only we’d set ourselves free from the ridiculous ideas that hold us back, and set about the task of really achieving our potentials.

The happiest (and most hopeful) people I know are the ones doing just that.



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