On hope

 

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Floating candles, California, 2010 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

 

Hope is a thing of grandeur. It is a primary pillar of many spiritual faiths; a thing we are told to hold onto when all else fails. Without it, especially during difficult times, what is left of our reason for being?

As someone who deeply appreciates the story and path of Jesus, I recognize that Advent (the time leading up to Christmas, which we are experiencing at the time of writing this) is a time of hope. In Biblical texts, the period leading up to Jesus’ birth was depicted as a time when deep darkness covered the earth and all seemed at a loss. Yet in this darkness a great light was gestating; the darkness was the seedbed for great changes that were fast approaching. Some knew this because they could read the signs (think: the Three Wise Men) and because of these abilities, they grasped hope from the clutches of despair. This hope, this light, this beacon, of course, was held in Jesus — the vulnerable, complex mixture of all-powerfulness and absolute powerlessness. God manifested as a human baby that couldn’t fend for itself yet somehow held the strength of all the heavens within it. What a beautiful metaphor indeed.

To have hope in a time of deep despair is a nuanced exercise. For some, it seems obvious that we should cultivate and nourish it. For others, it’s more complicated than that. Pema Chödrön, one of the most respected Buddhist teachers of our time, bluntly suggests we “abandon hope.” Put slightly differently, she says, “the trick is not getting caught in hope and fear.” For her and other Buddhists, hope is but an emotional state that is just as likely to yield suffering as fear.

Indeed, upon deeper inquiry, it becomes clear that many of our hopes are fed by our fears. We are afraid x will happen so we hope y happens instead. It’s somewhat circuitous, but if one looks at the true nature of both fear and hope, we see they are closely related and even woven of the same threads.

Because of its proximity to fear, we must be attentive to our hope. Otherwise, we’re likely to suffer whether or not we nourish said hope, for it will merely be a masked version of our fear. Hope is, therefore, a subtle practice, a delicate state of being that must be tended to diligently.

As a Christian who practices Buddhism, I often find myself at a cross-wiring when it comes to hope. My trust in God’s grace leads me to have immense hope for myself and the world, yet my Buddhist practice encourages me to let go of my hopeful thinking and the emotional states that come from hopefulness. It’s a very interesting space to be in.

What I’ve started doing in light of my seemingly-opposing spiritual inclinations is to nourish my hope without tethering it to an outcome. This is paradoxical when seen in the light of conventional understandings of hope, so let me explain.

In my view, hope is problematic when predicated on the need for a particular outcome to occur. To me, that’s like gambling with fate. You can’t control the vast majority of what will happen in your life, let alone the world, so why spend so much energy becoming emotionally invested in an outcome that could very well not happen? Of course, some argue “because that’s what keeps you going!” But what about when that thing you’re trying to avoid happens, or that thing you’re hoping for fails to happen? Was all your effort and emotion, then, a waste?

Hope is often used as a way to escape the discomfort of the present moment. To hope for a better future often translates into sidestepping our need to simply be present with what is happening right now: our pain, our sorrow, our anger, etc. That’s not always a helpful strategy. Again, in the words of Pema Chödrön: “If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.” We’re all walking on unsolid ground — we could all suddenly die of a freak accident, lose a loved one, or have unexpected changes knock us to the ground. Ironically, becoming comfortable with the “groundlessness” of life is necessary for achieving deep inner peace.

I won’t go as far as Pema Chödrön and suggest we abandon hope altogether. But I do believe it’s important to abandon hope that seeks to keep suffering at bay. That is an exercise in futility.

I also believe it’s important to release our hope from our desired outcomes. To hope without demanding that your vision for the future manifests is to hope for something different. It is to place a radical amount of trust in oneself and in the process. To have hope without necessitating a particular outcome is to act from the knowledge that even if none of what we want to occur actually happens, something transformative will nevertheless manifest in the depths of the unknown. That transformative something might be painful, but we recognize it is not wasted in the grand scheme of things precisely because there is no waste in the grand scheme, only transformation. This is not a spiritual truism; even the law on the conservation of energy points to this fact.

To have hope without requiring that our desired outcome manifests is to humbly admit that due to our own incapacity to understand the full scope of the process we neither know the best outcome nor have the means to bring it about on our own. So why seek to impose our hopes on the world? Why not instead trust that, no matter what, the situation will become transformed in a fashion that is aligned with workings that are far grander in scope than we can possibly understand? For some, like myself, these larger workings are called “God”; for others, they represent processes (be it mechanical, social, relational, etc.) that are larger than them.

Healthy hope is thus a matter of trusting that the larger process is inherently based on transformation rather than on the dichotomy of successful vs. wasted experience. To hope without skipping out of the present moment, without requiring that the world gives us a specific outcome, is to touch a deeper level of stability than fear-induced hope can ever offer. Above all else, healthy hope is a remembrance that fruitful transformation is inherent to all situations.

Further readings