What Hope Really Is

August 23, 2015 at 12:35 am

Hope is a talent like any other. -Storm Jameson

Ever since I learned my baby’s name, I have been slightly obsessed with all things hope-related. Songs about hope, poems about hope, hope art, hope jewelry, hope scriptures, quotes, and t-shirts. I haven’t actually bought anything except a few songs from iTunes, but I have plans to make some art to hang over the co-sleeper we’re planning to make.

How adorable is this (from Etsy)

How adorable is this (from Etsy)

Speaking of baby Hope, after a few days of mourning Elijah, I found myself at peace and growing more and more excited to meet this little girl. I think I know who she is and why she is coming to me. Long story. Maybe I will tell it to you some day. What matters now is that she is coming, and she is very grateful, and I am looking forward to meeting her.

So all this obsessing about hope has me thinking: what is hope? And I don’t just mean the dictionary definition. I mean what is hope really? Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. ‘Cause after spending far too much time getting acquainted with despair over the past few years, I feel like there is so much more to hope than just wanting or wishing or being optimistic. So much more.

I googled “hope” and found all kinds of ideas and opinions. Some of the things I found could have come straight out of my head in the summer of 2014. When you are hanging out in the darkness, it is natural and easy to become cynical about things like hope. A sampling of those thoughts:

“Hope is the only universal liar who never loses his reputation for veracity.” -Robert G. Ingersoll

“In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

“Hope deceives more men than cunning does.” -Vauvenargues

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” -Benjamin Franklin

I remember all too well how it felt to be in that hopeless place, and I much prefer the alternative. Google also showed me other ideas about hope… things that sounded like what I would have said last fall and winter as I began to see light at the end of my long, dark tunnel:

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.” -Anne Lamott

“Hope is the feeling we have that the feeling we have is not permanent.” -Mignon McLaughlin

“We make our lives out of chaos and hope. And love.” -Bones, “Mother and Child in the Bay”

“Though you lose all hope, there is still hope, and it loves to surprise.” -Robert Brault

“Hope never abandons you, you abandon it.” -George Weinberg

“The birds of hope are everywhere, listen to them sing.” -Terri Guillemets

One thing that became pretty clear as I pondered hope is that you cannot really have hope unless your situation is kinda crappy. The person who has everything she could ever want has no use for hope. The deeper the pit of despair, the greater the need/potential for hope. Truthfully, there is not a human being who has ever lived who didn’t need hope. We all come into this fallen world from a place of light and truth, and our now mortally-embodied spirits yearn (whether consciously or not) to find and connect with the pure light and truth we once inhabited. This world can feel heavy, so heavy and bleak. These words from Richard Rohr ring true:

The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy (source).

That’s just how it is. Our world has more than enough fuel for despair. This is why I don’t watch the news. I have, at times, felt incapable of inhabiting this place any longer. I felt that it was too much to bear, too heavy, too dark, too oppressive, too painful. When overwhelmed by despair, any hope can feel like false hope. When reality is so bleak, how do we choose life and hope?

My reading about hope led me to this article from Emotional Competency in which I learned about the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral James Stockdale was held in a Vietnam War prison camp for eight years, and brutally tortured more than twenty times. Despite his circumstances, Stockdale made it his focus to help the other soldiers survive. When asked how he endured, Stockdale explained: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you cannot afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever that may be.” This is the Stockdale Paradox. True hope is not disconnected from reality. Hoping is not being in denial. The article summarized “Real Hope” in this way:

I fully understand the difficulties I face and I know I can prevail in the end. I am encouraged and will never give up, despite the difficult challenges that lie ahead. The outlook is hopeful and the reality is accurate.

When I start feeling that oppressive weight of reality creeping up on me, I find hope in the only place it really can be found: love. Love is really inseparable from hope (and faith for that matter), but we already knew this. The only thing that makes sense in this world is love. The only thing that makes this world bearable is love. Love restores my faith and feeds my hope. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ fantastic essay, “You Were Made for This,” is perhaps one of the best hope-filled pep talks on the interwebs. One of my favorite excerpts:

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear.

This has been my experience. There is so much I do not know or understand about this life, but what I do know is that I will choose to live it… if only for the remarkable privilege of rubbing shoulders with the astonishingly beautiful souls I have and will encounter on this journey. Maybe everyone feels this way, but I feel like I am privileged to know the best, brightest, most talented, most pure-hearted, most wonderful people on earth. My beautiful people keep me tethered to life, no matter how painful and bleak it becomes.

So hope is a balancing act of sorts. Hope is seeing all this chaos and pain and struggle, seeing it clearly and more deeply than we ever wanted to, and yet choosing to believe that we will get through it, choosing to walk a brighter road, even if its destination is no different from the darkest road’s in the end. Hope is something we cultivate in darkness, fertilized with drops of possibility. It is a choice, a skill, a talent. Hope is focusing on the fact that circumstances are always changing, no matter how stuck or permanent they seem.


One of the best things my husband says to me when I’m experiencing a dark or anxious day is this: “It won’t last.” And I know he is right because I have seen it time and time again. Bad days are usually followed by good ones, and sometimes by bad ones again, but change is inevitable. All we can do is acknowledge the waves, enjoy the companionship of our fellow riders, and hope that this wild ride is all worth it in the end.

I’ll end with these words that capture so powerfully the roots of hope for me:

The Thing Is
By Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

birds of hope