An Essay on Man, Epistle I (1733) – Alexander Pope
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
It means that no matter the circumstances, man will always hope for the best – thinks that better things will come down the road. We may not always act our best, but we have the potential to be better in the future. No matter how bad things have been, they can always get better. (James, from the internet)
When I think of “hope”, I think just as much about “hopelessness”. Have we not all been in a state of hopelessness before? Realizing that we can no longer save a relationship, win a game, achieve a certain level of something or another.
Is not the phrase “This is hopeless!” just as profound to the human experience as the ability to muster hope? Can “hopelessness” sometimes be more valuable than “hope”? One can think of the alcoholic, who must often reach a state of hopelessness to overcome denial and take the necessary steps to find new hope for living.
When a person is suicidal, hopelessness is often the most pertinent emotion. Other forms of emotional distress are unlikely to put a person in such a dire state of mind. When a person feels hopeless, it may feel like a terrible state of “stuckness”, a “paralysis of the will”.
If you ever saw the prison movie, “The Shawshank Redemption”, there is a poignant moment where two prisoners express a disagreement on the value of hope. One prisoner suggests it leads to misery and even emotional instability to hope for anything when one is in prison for life. The other prisoner suggests that holding onto hope is the only way to cope with such a circumstance. Who is right? Perhaps they both are.
Hope and hopelessness are complementary in the human experience. Hope without hopelessness may lead to a naive view of the world, a “pie in the sky” mentality, and an unwillingness or incapability to face and grapple with true suffering and tragedy. Just imagine what it is like for someone in the throes of suffering to hear things like, “It will be better tomorrow”, “Keep your chin up”, “It’s not all that bad”, “Just try and look on the bright side”, and many other similar phrases. While such phrases can help on occasion, more often than not they create a total disconnect between the sufferer and the helper.
Much more helpful is the ability to be present to the experience of hopelessness. This requires courage to connect with someone who is in a state of hopelessnesss. A quiet support, without judgment, goes a long way. We see this often in the various forms of grief. To be with someone who is tormented by a grief reaction is a true commitment. Trying to give hope too hastily to a hopeless person can actually rob a person of the grief experience so necessary for healing.
Real hope is not found in a need to escape from hopelessness. Real hope is organic. It is an emotional understanding that resides in all of us, no matter how buried it may be under hopeless despair. It responds to patience and a faith that it is there to come out of its shell when ready. Real hope is often felt without any rational reason. It resides in the depths of the human experience. It doesn’t always respond to words, but rather a “felt sense”, often between two people, but perhaps, just as easily, a sunrise.
Hopelessness without hope is a narrow and even blinded view of one’s world. Such hopelessness is just as distorted as naive hope. It can even feed on itself as it denies the resources that may be available to the person. Such hopelessness can manifest in gratuitous self-pity. It is the ultimate self-absorption.
Hope and hopelessness are the two poles that give the individual a dynamic experience. Both are necessary for emotional and spiritual growth. We need not be afraid of a hopeless state of mind. It can put us on the brink of transformation and a fresh and original perspective. If we face the dark parts of ourselves, we will necessarily and fortunately experience hopelessness. This is best done not in a state of alienation, but with those who are not afraid to show their love and support through their presence.
When I was a kid, I was a member of an evangelical church. I remember some lines to a hymn we used to sing. Perhaps some of you may know it. It goes…
“We have a hope within our souls, brighter than the perfect day, God has given us his spirit and he wants the world to hear it, All our doubts have passed away.”
All our doubts have passed away? What sort of life would that be like, assuming it’s even attainable. (This may be part of the reason I’m a UU now.) When I interact with people who claim to have no doubts, especially when it comes to spiritual matters, I usually find the conversations very unpleasant. There’s just no way to communicate in the enriching gray areas without doubt and uncertainty.
I believe that my doubts have been essential to direct me on my own journey. I would say this is likely true of everyone, even the evangelical, whether it’s admitted or not.
Doubt, like hopelessness, is fundamental to living a fulfilling life. Doubt knocks us off our perches of certainty so that we can learn to tolerate uncertainty, not knowing, not being sure of ourselves. This is how we are receptive to new information and new experience, and this is how we grow.
It has not been my intention to romanticize hopelessness today. While it is inevitable and has tremendous value, it can be an agonizing and terrifying state of mind. We need each other to cultivate hope out of hopelessness. I believe this UU church does just that. Our hope and presence as a community provide hope to all who enter, not in doctrines or creeds, but in spirit, in the “felt sense”, and the less defined that is, the better.
So what to make of Alexander Pope’s words “hope springs eternal”. Hope springs eternal because hopelessness springs eternal. Any escape from this powerful truth only lessens our lived experience.