And I say to myself:
a moon will rise
from my darkness.
— MAHMOUD DARWISH
Hope is what remains in Pandora’s box after, despite Zeus warning her not to, she succumbs to her curiosity and lifts the lid.
Opening the box unleashes all the evils into the world: hate, greed, envy, war, poverty, death… But as she realizes what she’s done and slams the lid shut, hope is caught. Hope, says the myth, is left for humans to weather what has been unleashed, a bulwark against all the negative and horrible experiences they will now have to face.
There’s another interpretation of the tale, however. After all why, in a box full of only awful things, is hope there at all? This alternative idea is that hope is just as dreadful as the other evils; it remains for humans as more of a curse than a blessing.
So, which is it?
This summer, my publisher commissioned me to write a book about hope. Before this, I hadn’t given the concept that much thought. What I soon found is that it is not as straightforward as it seems.
What I learned is that hope is best explained as both interpretations of the Pandora myth being true at the same time. It’s a paradox. A contradiction. Something both necessary and pernicious, critical to our flourishing when times are tough and yet also capable of holding us hostage. It might be less “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, and more a double-edged sword. Let me explain.
Hope is not benignly ‘good’
Hope is essentially a neutral thing; the object of what you hope for matters.
You can hope for terrible things, like for someone you dislike to fail.
You can place your hope in shallow values, dreaming of a yacht or more followers or any number of vanity metrics in the bottomless pit that is external validation and materialism.
More darkly, you can become entrapped by your hopes rather than freed by them. You can despair at a dream denied while still clinging on to the impossible. Or, you can have your hopes turned against you, as in an abusive relationship, holding out for things to get better, the mind fighting to reconcile the dissonance created when sometimes you have what you need, and sometimes you don’t.
But if hope isn’t necessarily good, it isn’t necessarily bad, either; it’s better thought of as a tool, like a medication that requires careful administration for the right circumstances. Ask yourself what you are asking of hope.
You need hope, but what you need from hope can change
There’s this feminist performance collective whose motto is to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
Art can both heal and challenge. Sometimes it can do both at once, but I often see these as different states of need. If you’re in a space of needing comfort, it’s not likely to be a time of shaking things up. The earthquake has already happened, the rock bottom struck. Equally, if you’ve become complacent, you need something more than solace and sympathy.
So, too, with hope. It’s often from a low point that we remember to consider hope because we need it to recover ground. But hope is also a motivator.
Maybe you’re in a place of needing the kind of hope that helps you weather the storm with gentleness and understanding. The kind that says ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ and ‘this too shall pass.’ The kind that helps you learn how to carry or move through your grief, your lessons, your disasters.
Or, maybe you need hope to reorient yourself to the infinite possibilities in life. To kick-start you out of a more numb kind of despair or uncertainty. To drive you and help move you forward.
Both have their place, but in the wrong context can make hope seem more defeating than helpful. Allow what you need from hope to change, to meet you where you are.
Hope asks you to believe you can influence things but also requires you to release your grip on control
To truly have faith in your hopes, you need to believe you can influence your life. You are not some bottle being tossed around in ocean waves; you need to know you can set the course of your path.
At the same time, you need to release your grip on what is outside of your control, which, as it turns out, is nearly everything. If you cling to the way you think things should go, you create rigid expectations for yourself and set yourself up for more disheartening disappointment.
The trick is to focus on the effort you can put into your hopes and let go of what the outcome might look like.
You choose how to respond to what happens to you; You don’t control what happens to you. You are in charge of how many job applications you submit, how many words you write, how many contacts you reach out to; you can’t control whether you’re hired, whether a publisher buys your book, whether a contact is helpful. You direct your effort in your relationships; You don’t get to demand that they stay. You decide how you care for and spend time with those you love; you can’t control how much time you have left with them.
The challenge is to relax into the everyday experiences of being human, to stop trying to control for everything — this is a never-ending disappointment, like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill — and rather to believe in your own influence while remaining flexible in what the outcome looks like. Acceptance and letting go are necessary skills alongside hope.
Hope is about the future, but for the present
When you think about what you hope for, it is inevitably about a future wish. For something to be different than it is now. For something to be better than it is now. For something you have now to never end.
When you cling too tightly to a specific vision of what you hope for, you can end up a slave to it. Pema Chodron likens it to an addiction that can rob you of the experience of your life in the present.
Hope can be a source of strength to pull you through what you need to and to motivate you for the future. But all this wanting also carries with it an inherent vulnerability. You want for something and have no guarantees you’ll ever have it. Even if you achieve what you hope for, you might find it wasn’t what you expected or there is something new you now desire.
It’s why Mark Manson calls hope inevitably “destructive.” You can never be satisfied as long as you’re rejecting what currently is in the moment.
If you live only for an imagined better day on the horizon, your life will pass you by in dreams. You end up thinking you’ll only be happy when you get what you hope for while your life passes you by. Or, you could fail to appreciate what you have now out of the constant fear and worry about when it leaves you.
Hope requires an openness to wonder and possibility, but it’s destructive when it comes at the expense of life in the now.
It’s a difficult conflict to resolve. Manson suggests a kind of abandoning of hope and a commitment to take action anyway. Chodron argues freedom is found in hopelessness.
Try to use your hopes in a way that fuels you and gives you energy for the present.
So, how do you navigate hope’s contradictions?
This year the topic of hope comes up frequently in my conversations with friends. It’s not just the global crisis we find ourselves in; it’s in the way that all of life’s usual struggles and tragedies haven’t taken a break either. Everything is magnified and has felt at times relentless with few breaks in between the bad news.
You’d think writing a book about hope would make me feel just a little bit less useless, a little bit more qualified to provide helpful suggestions down the phoneline. But all I have to offer is this.
Whatever you’re facing, hope says to you: how it is is not how it will always be; how it is is not how it has to be. There is both comfort and motivation within this — take what you need from it.
What you hope for matters, and how you hope matters. To make hope work for you rather than against you, to be a beacon rather than a starless sky, you need to work within its contradictions.
Use hope to drive you forward, past any obstacles, and let go of what you need to, bravely. Learn from it all — the successes and the disappointments.
Believe in your own ability to influence the course your life takes, but relax your expectations of where it will take you. Hold on to hope, but hold it loosely; be flexible, not rigid, especially when it comes to how your hopes might be realized.
Set yourself a vision for your future, being open to the widest range of possibilities, but stay accepting and grateful for all the present offers, too.
Lastly, don’t look for hope. You might never find it. Create it. Don’t passively wish — make your hope active. Take action, placing your hopes in your efforts. The effort is enough.