On Hope and Optimism

On Hope and Optimism

Hope is foolish. There, I have purposefully throw down the gauntlet, attacking this gilded imposter. We hear constantly that we should have hope, never give it up, and even cling to it. Those who profess to have stores of hope also label themselves “optimists”. I heard recently two people confess, in similar self-congratulatory tones, their nature as “optimists.” One, interviewed on a radio show, said it twice in a brief space a propos of random future situations, “Well, I am an optimist.” The other crowed, “In case you haven’t noticed from my songs, I am an optimist.” Do you mean that regardless of reason you think that all kinds of impossible things are possible and that you live your life in anticipation of that? Would you also exalt, “Hey, I’m not reasonable!” Probably so, but let’s clarify.

Hope can be specific or general. For example, if I have hope regarding a specific event, I think that means that I desire a certain outcome although I have little or no have no control over it, and in many cases, if evaluated honestly, I would know that any given desired outcome is improbable. If hope sets up expectation and anticipation, we are living in a way that Seneca lamented as living a life in suspension. If we live like that generally, we are those vaunted optimists. Seneca wrote: “Expectancy is the greatest impediment to living; in anticipation of tomorrow it loses today. Everything future is uncertain; live now.” We not only miss the moment at hand, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, as Seneca described such a person as developing, “A soul unnerved by disappointed hopes.” I would add that we are also not acting from reason but from emotion. Reason would tell us what we can expect based on the odds, experience, or research. When we leave reason behind, we have to wonder why we have abandoned our special gift as human beings and thrown ourselves onto the spears of emotion.

An example would be the person who hopes to become an actor. He can envision that as his goal, but he has to calculate the chances and have a viable plan B. If he lives on hopes of a big break, he is doomed. The same is true for writers—I have learned that the hard way. Now, you might ask, does one give up and not try? One can still send off the manuscript, but if any moment is spent in hopes of someone publishing it, then harmful emotion has crept in and pushed your reason aside, to your great detriment. If, on the other hand I “hope” means, I want something (although I should not want it excessively in any event) and I am going to try hard to accomplish it, although I know that the outcome is not much in my control, then that makes sense and is not hoping so much as trying, although the difference starts to look like semantics. Speaking of which, it is very difficult to form a sentence about the future without using the word “hope”.

On a more general level, one speaks of hope, such as hope for the future–equally foolish as hope for a particular event. Will things get better? In any life there will be some good things and some bad things, with the possibility of undreamed for disasters. What else could one reasonably think is going to develop? Seneca, who lived admittedly in very turbulent times, wrote: “What can happen to somebody can happen to anybody.” He also identified the relationship of hope to fear. “You will cease to fear when you cease to hope. Though the two seem different they are in fact attached. Nor do I find it surprising that they keep company, for each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring. The cause in both cases is failure to adjust ourselves to the present and a tendency to project our mental processes far into the future. Foresight, which is mankind’s greatest advantage, is thus turned to disadvantage.” I am always reminded when I read that of the conclusion to Robert Burns’s poem, “To a Field Mouse,” when the narrator of the poem sadly admits about his future: “I guess and fear.”

Last, in inspecting the imposter’s credentials, there is also the aspect that is synonymous with belief when applied to an afterlife– hope in heaven, as they say. Perhaps the most pointless, but also the kind of hope that is at least free of the ills of disappointment—we certainly won’t be disappointed when we find out that the hoping was in vain because we will be “where fear and hope fluctuate no more.” Having hope, in this context, means calling into service our imaginations about things unseen, unknown, and nonexistent in any sense that we know existence. Emily Bronte was an advocate of that approach, as I will show below.

First, however, Emily Bronte, in the following poem, considered the kind of hoping that focuses on an improvement, either through the occurrence of a certain event or generally. She reveals in the poem that hope is painfully elusive, and that it is best to abandon any concern for such a creature.

Hope was but a timid friend,
She sat outside by grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend
Even as selfish hearted men.

She was cruel in her fear;
Through the bars, one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there,
And she turned her face away!

Like a false guard, false watch keeping,
Still, in strife, she whispered peace;
She would sing while I was weeping,
When I listened, she would cease.

False she was, and unrelenting;
When my last joys strewed the ground,
Even Sorrow saw, repenting,
Those sad relics scattered round;

Hope—whose whisper would have given
Balm to all that frenzied pain—
Stretched her wings and soared to heaven;
Went —and n’er returned again.

If we move from that poem to others, we see that Bronte’s solution to the sorry state of affairs in life was not to hope for better, but to imagine better. Though that worked for her, I don’t think many of us have the depth of imagination to live in our own world. I suggest the Stoic approach for us mere non-Bronte mortals. If it is a future situation over which you have little or no control, do not pin hopes on it, or even give it much thought. Stay in the present, and, overall, remember the relative unimportance of many external events. Have, never give up, and cling to reason.

Here is her poem that describes her process; she prefers the world that she imagines to the one in which “the mangled wretch is forced to smile” (her line from another poem). The “friend” with the “kind voice” whom she addresses is her imagination.

When weary with the long day’s care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again–
O my true friend, I am not lone
While though canst speak in such a tone!

So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world, where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou and I and Liberty
Have undisputed sovereignty.

What matters it if all around
Danger and grief and darkness lie,
If but within out bosom’s bound
We hold a bright unsullied sky,
Warm with ten thousand mingled rays
Of suns that know no winter days.

Reason indeed may oft complain
For Nature’s sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain
Its cherished dreams may always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down
The flowers of Fancy newly blown.

But thou art ever there to bring
The hovering visions back and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring
And call a lovelier life from death,
And whisper with a voice divine
Of real worlds as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet still in evenings quiet hour
With never-failing thankfulness
I welcome thee benignant power
Sure solacer of human cares
And brighter hope when hope despairs.