Hope enjoys an undeserved good reputation. We are told to have hope and hold out hope even when things seem to any reasonable mind absolutely determined against us. Why is that? What is hope doing for us at the dire moments of our lives? Basically misleading us for a little while. All the hope in the world has no effect on an outcome. So why prolong the suspense or forestall the eventual agony? The theory in Stoicism on that question (and one that makes sense to me) is that when the eventual arrives, reality will be all the more painful after all that unrealistic hoping. Therefore continuing in a state of expectation just based on what one would like does no good, but does harm. Here are our desires masquerading as a positive force. Rather than understanding the possibilities and preparing ourselves for them mentally, we increase the drop from which we will fall. One might counter — what if the dreaded event does not occur? Would we then conclude that we suffered needlessly in envisioning a bad outcome? First, I am not advocating that one reach any conclusion, just that one realistically come to terms with the possibilities, understanding that the bad and unhappy result is certainly possible or evenvery likely. Second, in the unlikely event fortune hands out a trump card, how nice; life has exceeded our reasonable expectations. A last ill effect of hoping is that, in some circumstances, hoping might take the place of doing — taking some action that might actually have some measure of benefit.
What has provoked these thoughts (not that any one incident is necessary given how pervasive this insidious practice of hoping is in every aspect of life) is an interview on the radio of a “grief counselor” of the family members of the missing Malaysia Air flight 370. When asked what she tells family members to assuage their grief she responded, to not give up hope, i.e. continue to indulge an expectation that can hardly be satisfying and that delays and worsens the inevitable. Another one, who was interviewed on television, echoed that approach, even though at that point in time the question was more pointedly, how do you help people deal with the reality of what we now must believe happened to the plane. I was poised to hear some advice on accepting death (something that might help and would be generally very useful information to have on hand), but all I heard was the platitude about having hope. Therein lies yet another trick of hope–it cuts off other more helpful formulations to face life and death.