Hope is often a word used to describe a motivating idea of a future condition that people seek in order to improve their present condition. It’s the essence of faith in Christianity; the “substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 1:11). It’s enough to spark and sustain a rebellion against the Empire in the Star Wars movie franchise. A friend of mine recently spoke about how hope is what got her out of jail and on to a different, healthier path in life. Rarely is hope a concept or feeling that is associated with anything negative or toxic.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön argues that hope may not exactly be what it seems. Contrary to the evidence that hope is a sustaining force for a healthy life, it can have the reverse effect and create suffering. She proposes that we have the “motivational” quote of “Abandon Hope” on our refrigerators than a doctor’s office slogan pioneering vague feelings to improve as our desires are met. For a Buddhist, this tractor beam of desire pulling us towards what looks like a better future is the root of suffering itself.
Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world (Chödrön, p. 53).
While hope can be a tremendous motivator in times of adversity, it can also be a weight that anchors a person in a cycle of their own suffering. The things that I hope for and desire might not be healthy for me, or for those around me, and rather than save me from my current circumstances, hope can create another set of circumstances that only make me uncomfortable and the cycle starts over. Hope, desire, expectations – all of these things are generated with emotions rooted in a present moment, on the foundation of a set of memories that might not even be all that accurate, pointing towards a future that might lead me to an even worse condition than I am feeling in the moment. Economists and behavioral psychologists have observed that our memories are colored by our current emotional state and are rarely accurate representations of what actually happened, that our present emotional responses to experience are more often than not irrational bases on which to make decisions that will lead us to sounder well-being, and that as a result our expectations and hopes are distorted and often wrong. All that is to say, while hope can be a strong, positive motivation for change, it may not be a healthy default position for how to live one’s life. At some point a critical and hard engagement with present reality has to take place. In other words, at some point, we have to give up hoping for something different in order to be relaxed about how things are in the present.
I have learned that my own use of hope often gets screwed up in my head with unhealthy expectations of myself and others in a way that is has a demotivating effect on positive change. Instead of being relaxed with the mundanities of life and the sometimes miserable or aversive emotions that run into me often at unexpected moments, hope makes me long for something I can’t possibly have in the moment, and that simply reinforces all of those aversive feelings I hope to be rid of and everything feels so much worse.
The question that I had after approaching the way my mind will twist hope into a source of despair was, How can I move towards a positive change when things just don’t feel right or good? Saying “Fuck it all” and becoming a nihilist curmudgeon sounded even worse! And it would have been.
I remembered something Emmitt Smith once said about his High school coach. They were talking about Smith’s dreams for his future. The coach said, “Write those dreams down. Once you write them down, they become goals you can work for.” What I have learned is that if I am not feeling right with the world, rooting my desire for change in a set of aimless and wandering feelings called “hope” doesn’t land anywhere and reinforces all the stuff that makes me feel horrible. But if I can translate hope into a plan of action, then I have something I can work with to improve those aversive conditions in order to make progress in feeling better. At that point, even if I fail in that plan of action, I at least know I put in a good effort.
There are some things that make you feel horrible you can’t just change. Some people will just not like you even if you try your hardest to get on their good graces; you might just not be able to get enough income to pay off that debt or take that trip in the timeframe you set for yourself; that person might never say “Yes” to going out on that date with you; and you might never win any award for anything you have done regardless of how great you and others think it is. Some of those things rely on the decisions of other people and no one can control another person without being abusive. But we can all try to make those situations better with practical action.
This year, I’m skipping the resolutions. Those are hope loaded dreams that are rarely fulfilled. As with last year, I’m focusing on a few goals and breaking these goals into a few manageable steps. I also will try to understand why it is that I really want these goals. Doing this kind of work means changing my schedule, being uncomfortable as I change my daily patterns, and figuring out a new balance with all the other requirements and obligations I have in life, so I better know why I’m doing it in the first place.
Chödrön, P. (1997). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Shambhala: Boston.