Monday, June 29, 2009

The problem with hope.

Or perhaps it is more a problem with the inconsistent approach we have toward the notion of hope. We, by turns, tell people that they have to have hope and not to get their hopes up. The various and sundry sayings on the topic run the gamut of 'there is no such thing' to 'you can't live without it.' So which is it? Or is it both? Or neither?

I considered the possibility that the difference between not getting your hopes up and having to have hope might lie in the situations that they are used. This didn't seem to work out, however.

We seem to say 'don't get your hopes up' in situations where there actually IS some small possibility that whatever we are hoping for could happen. It might not be probable or likely, but it is not totally impossible. I think we see this frequently in situations with children. It is almost parental code for 'it ain't gonna happen.' It serves to delay likely disappointment, but not much else. The person who says it probably feels fairly certain that the let-down will be coming, but doesn't want to voice the bad news yet. If the hope is that an absent parent will finally, finally come to visit or that Santa will bring a pony, the adult on the spot has a strong idea that neither one is going to happen. So what is accomplished by delaying the disappointment until the non-arrival of the parent or the pony? It could be that the adult also harbors a tiny hope that they will not have to disappoint the child. It could be that they want to protect the child from the inevitable sadness. It could be that they want to delay their own sadness in seeing the sadness of the child until the last moment. But I wonder if it really serves anyone to do so.

The same holds true when adults use it with each other. Perhaps the one saying it has seen the other person face too much disappointment and can't bear the notion that they will be flattened by disappointment yet again.

On the other hand, when things look as if they are irretrievably hopeless, we tell the person that they 'have to have hope.' "There is always hope." Etc. etc. Even when we know for a fact that there is not always hope, the semblance of hope must be maintained. In fact, the more desperate a situation looks, the more we insist that there is hope. A cure may be found. It is only temporary. It's probably not as bad as it looks. It is always said as an attempt to cheer someone up. But absent any evidence that it might be true, it frequently falls flat.

We also are skeptical of anyone who seems to maintain hope in the face of improbable odds. At the very least, we might consider them to be desperate. In the extreme, they are simple or deluded. A perpetual Pollyanna is not taken very seriously.

So what the heck is going on here? I'm not certain by any stretch of the imagination, but the most obvious possibility is that it is a vital survival mechanism. What would happen to someone who truly had no hope? There is at least some chance that they would give up and be able to release the pain of disappointment. If there is no hope, then there is no expectation and it would make the pain of disappointment less. But I think that would only be true of a minority of people. And the effort to reduce pain would also reduce joy.

Even at my most cynical and at the lowest points of my life, there has always remained just a tiny seed of hope that whatever pain or loss was going on would somehow be lessened in the future. It may not, in fact, happen, but being able to anticipate potential improvement in the future can remove enough of the edge of the current pain to carry on into the future. It could be self-delusion or a coping mechanism, but it also could be an innate survival tool. Even if it is delusional, a reasonable amount of hope cannot hurt us in the short term and may help us make it through to a better place.

"Never deprive someone of hope...it may be all they have." -- Anonymous.

1 comment:

Knitman said...

At first I thought I had nothing to say. Then I realised I have lived my whole on hope! Truly, without hope I would have died, probably by my own hand. At least I tried that when I ran out of it. Mostly though the hope that tomorrow would better is what kept me going through all of those years of anguish-that I would find the way to alleviate my agony. I did. I still have hope for better and better. It's how I live, the difference is that now I do enjoy each day and the hoping is not desperate.