I've been thinking about what it means to be hopeful. We often hear, especially in Christian circles, about 'faith, hope, and love' but while faith and love get lots of attention, hope seems to be more often an undercurrent that is mentioned abstractly, but without knowing exactly where it fits or what to do with it. We are told to keep hoping, or how important hope is, but what is it exactly? I'm becoming more and more convinced that the order should be reversed (love, hope, faith) and that dialectical relationships (where all three influence and modify the others) are the best way to conceive these concepts. But I won't get into all that here.
For now, I want to suggest that hope is intimately and necessarily related to possibility. Without possibility, there can be no hope. What I mean is this: hope seems to entail that a person's existence might turn out differently. If nothing can turn out differently, then there does not seem to be any reason for hope. So, in a sense, we might say that as long as there is the possibility of genuine change (which I think most people would agree is the case), then there is the potential for hope.
I say potential, because this possibility itself is not all that we need for hope to take shape; we also need, as human beings, to be conscious of possibility. It seems reasonable to conclude that human beings, for whatever reason, differ from all other animals precisely in this way. That is, there is no other animal, as far as we know, who is conscious of the possibility that their reality could be different. Animals accept their reality as it is; they do not seek to modify it or question its structure. And hope depends upon the recognition that things could be other than what they are. If we did not realize that things could be different, we would never make any decision about hope, because we simply would not be aware that there is a decision to be made.
I would suggest this is a key feature of our humanity. It is the ability to realize that things could be other than what they are which compels us to live our lives in ways that actually do change the way things are. All animals (including humans), I take it, 'keep living' in a deterministic sense, i.e. they have a drive to stay alive as long as possible. But I don’t think anyone would define that as hope. This is why it seems deficient to simply say that hope is the decision to keep on living. The question is: living for what reason? Is it because of a biological impulse, or because of a recognition that a different reality is possible?
This leads into my third point: hope implies individual freedom. At this point, someone might argue that a being conscious of its possibility could conceivably be hopeful even if personal freedom does not exist. (I do not intend here to debate whether there really is such a thing as freedom or not; though we certainly live as if there is.) It does seem that one could hope for a better world, and recognize that it is possible, even if one also believes that there is nothing one can do to bring about that change. So, why do we need freedom to have hope?
I would say, in response, that just to be able to hope is not the same as hoping. Hope may be a possibility due to the changing structure of the world, but for me to hope involves a decision on my part. It may sound obtuse, but the most primordial decision is the decision to decide. How this comes about may be a mystery, but it seems reasonable to say that at some point, the human being, conscious of the possibility for change, and the fact that its actions actually do change things, concludes that those actions mean something. I am not simply doing what the order of the universe has dictated, so that all of my actions are predetermined to such a degree that everything has already been decided.
If complete determinism were the case, then it becomes difficult to see how something like hope could take root, because it would be grounded in nothing more than an abstraction. I could 'hope' that my existence is a good thing in the end, but there would be no reason to suspect that over any other possibility. Hope would an endlessly 'deferred' (to use a Derridean word) concept that would amount, practically speaking, to a wish or dream. And hope seems to imply more than those terms.
What's more, even to have hope in a completely determined universe implies that a decision has already been made: the decision to have hope to begin with. In other words, I have to make the choice to be hopeful, even if I don't believe that hope is grounded in anything more than an abstract concept that does not exist in a deterministic world. But this seems to lead to a self-contradictory position, wherein one has to admit that the decision to hope has itself been predetermined, so in what sense can it really be called hope?
Obviously, we are temporal, finite beings, so our freedom is limited. But without any freedom at all, it would seem that hope is meaningless, since even if one could claim to have hope, it would only be due to a predetermined play of factors that led to that person's claim about hope, and it would not involve any decision on the part of the person to have hope. Inversely, if hopelessness is to have any meaning, then it seems that one ought to have had genuine possibilities. It would be pointless to speak of 'giving up hope' if there is nothing to give up. Thus, it seems to me that in order for there to be genuine hope, there does need to be some level of freedom present in the reality of human beings.
However, and this is the last point I will make here, none of this should be taken to suggest that hope is easy to describe. In Christian circles, for example, we often speak of hope in terms of 'trusting in God' or 'choosing to follow Christ', but these are vaguely tautological, in that we aren't really told what hope is. Instead, we are given what seems to be a sort of similar statement and told that is how we should understand hope. But what does it mean to trust in God? What does it mean to follow Christ? We are left with new questions, but we haven't really defined hope.
Sometimes we also hear that to hope is to 'choose life' or some similar slogan. But life, especially when we take spiritual life into account, can mean different things in different contexts, as can death. There are times when what appears as death to me will in fact be precisely what is needed to bring life to another. Hope thus becomes not only the decision to live, but also the decision to choose life, even when that life appears as death to those outside of our situation. And, hope chooses to stand by/with another in the midst of their ‘living’, even when, for all intents and purposes, it feels to us as though the other is dying.
Thus, even as Christians, the most consistent position would seem to be that all of our reflections on hope are provisional, which supports the claim that hope exceeds our grasp. Does this mean we are, after all, in a position where we cannot have any knowledge about our hope? It is nothing more than an irrational wish, a problem we had hoped to avoid? I don't think so--it does seem that we can provide reasons for our hope, but then others can provide reasons for their hopes as well. It is then up to each of us to decide where we will place our hope. This is, in the end, not a rational decision, but it is not completely void of good reasons either. But what seems clear is that each of us, at some level, exists in hope (unless we have no consciousness of our relation to possibility at all).