On Hope


Why is it so strange that, when reading a good piece of literature on the subject of hope, I feel deeply touched? Or that, conversely, I feel unmoved? More precisely, why is it that the latter feels more natural than the former?

Rebecca Solnit talks of the puritanical spirit which infuses the cynic in us with the satisfaction of being right “because the somber pleasure of condemning things is the most enduring part of that legacy, along with the sense of personal superiority that come from pleasure denied.’ It’s easier to be cynical, and see your worldview being validated in the news, than it is to be hopeful, and have to work towards a better world while putting up with cynical voices shutting you down. And there are plenty of those, aren’t there? Not just all around you, but inside, too. 

We must be careful however, to distinguish our inner cynic from our critical spirit. As Maria Popova put it: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety”. And that’s just it: our world has become cynical. Lots of critical thinking, zero hope. 

“Hopefulness is risky, since it is after all a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible, even in discontinuity. To be hopeful is to take on a different persona, one that risks disappointment, betrayal, and there have been major disappointments in recent years.”

— Rebecca Solnit

We’re all pretty good at enumerating the disappointments so I won’t bother listing them here. They’re all around for all to see. But what of the hopeful things that have come to be? Those stories that are both harder to tell and harder still to believe. The stories about how millions around the world organised themselves to stop the WTO in Seattle. Or the Korean farmers and Mexican campesinos who stood up to the WTO in Cancun 4 years later. Or the thirty million people around the world who formed the largest protest in history, marching against the war in Iraq. 

What is remembered is the war in Iraq, and the fact that the WTO still exists, and that the campesinos still live in poverty. Not that it was the first time that the world organised itself across nations and creeds to make a stand — whether it is against war or against corporate world domination. Such considerations are neither part of our understanding of contemporary history nor do we want them to be. 

It’s as if seeing the positive in events was tantamount to accepting hope, which is a travesty given the world wars, the violence, the war in Iraq despite the millions saying ‘no’, the police brutality, the rape, the images, basically, that we see on the news and in the media day in day out of our lives ever since we can remember. The world sucks. We have Trump for God’s sake. Saying that you’re hopeful for the future means you’re either a techno-freak patiently waiting for the Singularity, or that you’re simply an idiot who’s never picked up a history book or turned on the telly. 

In Steven Pinker’s preface to his epic A History of Violence, in which he makes a rock-solid case for the decline of violence (across the spectrum) over the past millennia, he says that his research has made the present look less sinister. That we have actually achieved so much in terms of literacy, human rights, ecological awareness, gender equality and sexual liberation, and that it is important to acknowledge the progress made. 

Man’s inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralisation. With the knowledge that something has driven it down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, ‘Why is there war?’ we might ask, ‘Why is there peace?’ We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong but also over what we have ben doing right. Because we have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly, it is. 

— Steven Pinker

We have a hard time giving ourselves a pat on the back. We’ve grown an aversion to it, and become squeamish whenever we encounter an instance of it in public. Like ‘oh God that mom just said well done to their toddler for singing the alphabet song again. Really?’ Could it be that we are so unsatisfied with our own lives that when we see others enjoying theirs, or congratulating someone for a done deed, all we are incapable of feeling genuinely happy for them? 

This conclusion resonates with me, because I can see how my personal life and worldview are intimately connected. One stems from the other. I think Rebecca Solnit is right when she says “I think that this grimness is more a psychology that an ideology.” And perhaps I’d be fine with that if I really did have reasons to be grim. But shit. I’m in the most privileged demographic in the world. That’s also part of the problem: it makes self-loathing a more attractive option. 

Just as my heartache can lend itself to a dire worldview, so it must also be true that mending that heart lends itself to a hopeful one. In one of the most beautiful passages ever written by a man in prison, Czech playwright and future president Vaclav Havel gives shape to hope and why it is not only necessary but, in fact, sublime. And the only way to read his words are by trusting him; by casting aside our doubts both about ourselves and others; and by believing that he believed what he wrote with the depth of his heart. And if we can do that, we’re already halfway to mending our own hearts and opening them to hope.

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.

— Vaclav Havel

Hope, as Havel sees it, is intimately connected to virtue. A very old fashioned concept that rings funny in today’s world of WhatsApp notifications and Tinder swipes. Because it’s old fashioned; because it’s so heavily laden with religious connotation and because God is supposedly dead; virtue has fallen into disbelief. At the same time, it is exactly what we crave. It’s the food our souls yearn to be fulfilled with, and it appears in our lives even when we want to believe it isn’t there. Virtue is not a promise. Virtue is not something that can let you down. Virtue just is. We do virtuous acts all the time. It’s just that we rarely acknowledge them as such.

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© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna