Approaching a much-needed virtue
By Susanne Janssen
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness,” said Desmond Tutu.
There are people who walk quietly happy through life despite severe hardships that they have to face.
There are others who see the world gloomy and fear that the future will be less rosy than the present.
Is that only about seeing “the glass as half full or half empty,” or having a personality that is more optimistic or pessimistic?
Our personality traits and our upbringing certainly influence how we envision the future; how we deal with changes and how we try to overcome obstacles. However, there may be other factors that influence our outlook.
A Pew Study in Spring 2015 showed that in developed countries like the U.S or Western Europe, 60% said that the next generation will be worse off, and only 32% said that their children will be better off (the median was even more pessimistic, with 64% saying worse and only 27% saying “better off”). In emerging countries, the average was 26% (worse) to 51% (better).
Does that mean that if you already enjoy a better lifestyle, you are more likely to be afraid that you could lose some of your privileges? Maybe, but it doesn’t explain why you are hopeful or not. Being in dire conditions could make one feel desperate too; thinking that without a good starting point they’ll never be able to advance.
There are endless inspiring stories of people who hope against all odds: the man who, after months of searching, finds employment during an economic crisis; the reconciliation of a broken marriage; the person struck by a severe illness who recovers miraculously; the lost family member who is found after years.
But how can one be hopeful?
I think most people agree that being hopeful can be beneficial, and studies prove it. Patients who maintain high levels of hope have an improved prognosis for life-threatening illness and an enhanced quality of life.
Belief and expectation, which are key elements of hope, block pain in patients suffering from chronic illness by releasing endorphins and mimicking the effects of morphine.
Consequently, through this process, belief and expectation can set off a chain reaction in the body that can make recovery from chronic illness more likely. This chain reaction is especially evident with studies demonstrating the placebo effect, a situation when hope is the only variable aiding in these patients’ recovery.
Good vs. evil
For good reasons, hope is a virtue, not something that comes too easily to us all the time. How do I see the outcome of the eternal fight between good and evil? In the end, do I believe that people are substantially good and capable of altruism, or do I come to the conclusion that people are prone to harm others if not disciplined?
Our answer to these questions might be influenced by our experiences. If someone broke into your house, you are more likely to fear that it will happen again. Also if some of your neighbors were victims of a crime, you could expect a similar fate.
In our modern media society, the increased amount of news about crimes could lead us to the conclusion that our world is getting worse, even if statistics show that this is not the case. In 1975, there were 9.6 murders per 100,000 people in the U.S.; in 2015, that number was down to 4.9 (even lower than the 1960 rate of 5.1, the earliest year this statistic is available). Burglary has fallen as well, having had a rate of 1,532.1 per 100,000 people in 1975 and more recently only 491.4 in 2015.
So despite these facts, it seems that people are still afraid of becoming a crime victim more than ever.
Did we lose hope?
The famous Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope (1977) introduces Luke Skywalker, who is expected in the future to allow good to triumph over evil in the films. It shows the almost hopeless situation of the (good) Rebel Alliance against the dark forces of Darth Vader, a former Jedi Knight (a parallel construction of the Christian tradition where the Angel Lucifer turned against God and became Satan).
Luke overcomes all fears, and despite the hopeless situation, continues to believe in the victory of good.
Even if this is all fiction, it still deals with the question of how people can stay hopeful in the face of war or difficult personal sufferings.
On a smaller scale, how can we be hopeful if there are always less and less faithful in the pews on Sunday morning in our parish?
Let’s draw some inspiration from two Americans who changed their country: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. And Robert Kennedy: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D. (1970–2016), author of the 2013 book Making Hope Happen, was the world’s leading researcher on hope. He came to the conclusion that “we have confused hoping with wishing. The difference between wishing and hoping is that wishing is passive, but hoping is active. Wishing actually undermines your chances of success.”
In his best-selling book he wrote, “Hope is created moment by moment through our deliberate choices … It happens when we use our thoughts and feelings to temper our aversion to loss and actively pursue what is possible.” He was convinced that hope is contagious, and he made it clear: hope is not mere optimism.
Václav Havel (1936–2011), Czech writer and politician, got to the point: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” It means shifting perspective from our narrow view to a broader vision, to the bigger picture.
Eventually this perspective has the limit of death. Whoever believes that death is the end of everything, cannot hope more than living a fulfilled life on earth. But for those with faith, the outlook may be much different.
The faith perspective
Focolare founder Chiara Lubich wrote in her book Meditations (1959): “If we find ourselves surrounded by a world hardened by passions and worldly ambitions, stripped of ideals, of justice and of hope — as is often seen in politics and government — we should not feel suffocated. We need to trust and above all not abandon our post and our commitment. With the One who has conquered death, we can hope against all hope.”
Christian hope in the afterlife adds a new dimension to the meaning of suffering during the short time on Earth. However, it isn’t an invitation just to endure these years. On the contrary, hope is undoubtedly active.
Pope Francis, always urging people to work for the poor and the less fortunate, said on January 17: “Hope is struggling, holding onto the rope, in order to arrive there. In the struggle of everyday, hope is a virtue of horizons, not of closure! Perhaps it is the virtue that is least understood, but it is the strongest … always looking forward with courage.”
When everything is dark, one should “hold onto the rope and endure,” said the pope, stating that a Christian life can never be lukewarm but should be courageous and hopeful.
Maybe it is in those dark moments where we can grow in the virtues that enable us to live a life that gives witness to our faith beliefs and is attractive to others.
The English writer and theologian G. K. Chesterton (1987–1936) put it this way: “To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”
With Emilie Christy
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