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On Hope

When life is hard, we often turn to hope. 

Hope allows us to believe that our predicament is only temporary, that things will get better again. Having hope is usually considered a good thing. According to Psychology Today, “As long as a patient, individual or victim has hope, they can recover from anything and everything”.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear,” agrees Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

But, he continues, there’s a catch:

“But that is the most that hope can do for us - to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic…

Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment… I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment...”

Instead of hoping for things to get better in the future, we should learn to appreciate what we have right now.

His advice is echoed by Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times:

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with where we are or who we are...

Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations…”

Give up hope? This advice may seem indefensibly defeatist.

Yet sometimes hope leads to more anxiety and stress, not less. We pay a price for hope: fear. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I hope I will be able to fight it off – but I fear that I will not. If I lose my job, I hope I will soon find another – but I fear that I will not. If my partner tells me they are unhappy in our marriage, I hope we can work together to save it – but I fear that we will fail.

Fear, not hopelessness, is the opposite of hope. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck writes

“…what happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something. That grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness...

A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life.”

Hopelessness does not mean that we do not care about our situation. It does not mean that we should never strive for anything. We can have goals, and if we achieve them that is fine. However, if we fail to achieve them that is fine too. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, it's about having the serenity to accept the things that we recognise we cannot change. It does not excuse us from the need to find the courage to change the things we can.