The Downside of Hope
“There’s a hope in hopeless, so things are looking up.”
Whitehorse, Trophy Wife
Western culture values hope.
In The Divine Comedy, fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri inscribed above the gates of hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Once in hell, there’s no escape from eternal torture, no hope of heaven.
So hope seems like an obvious good.
And maybe you’ve used the word hope a lot in 2020. I hope things go back to normal. I hope there’s a vaccine soon. I hope . . . there’s a lot we could fill in after that word “hope” given the challenges of the last year.
However, in her book When Things Fall Apart (a great read for 2020), Buddhist nun Pema Chodron points to the downside of hope. She writes, “Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other . . . Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty” (88).
In other words, we turn to hope because we feel we are experiencing lack. If things are fine, we don’t need hope. Fear accompanies hope because we fear things won’t turn out in the way we prefer, in the way that we hope. To put too much stock in hope pulls us out of the present moment and has us living in the future, both hoping for and afraid of what will come.
I suppose Dante would offer more good examples, but I’m going to use another important classic to make my point: the 1983 film A Christmas Story.
Set in the 1940s, the film is narrated by a now-adult Ralphie who at the time of the story is a boy who wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. We watch as Ralphie plots how to get this much-desired toy, which he knows adults will object to by saying, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie writes an essay at school whose prose he feels sings, sure that he will earn an A and get his teacher on his side in his quest to get the Red Ryder BB gun. She responds with a C+ and a note that he’ll shoot his eye out. Though he no longer believes in Santa, he endures an incredibly long line to ask the department store Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Santa responds with, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” And on it goes. Yet Ralphie keeps on plotting and hoping.
And Ralphie gets his Red Ryder BB gun! Of course, he only discovers this after ripping through wrapping paper on numerous other gifts, which he could not care less about. Finally, his father asks if he got everything he wanted. A polite Ralphie mutters, trying to hide his disappointment. His father points to the one last present hidden away, and Ralphie’s hopes have come true. He immediately runs outside, not even remembering to get dressed, and shoots that BB gun. The Red Ryder BB gun recoils, butts into Ralphie’s glasses, and breaks them. He’s sort of shot his eye out.
For weeks, Ralphie spends his energy on hoping for that Red Ryder BB gun. His happiness lasts about five minutes until coming face-to-face with the fear of shooting that eye out.
The movie is a comedy, so Ralphie’s eye is fine, and he puts on his old glasses. The last scene is of a happy Ralphie cuddling the gun in bed on Christmas night.
Hope isn’t bad. Ralphie ends up happy. But Ralphie also creates a lot of unnecessary stress for himself by putting all of his energy into hoping rather than enjoying the Christmas season. He trades all sorts of opportunities to be happy by concentrating only on hope—and the fear that things won’t turn out the way that he wants.
It’s good to have hope, but we don’t want to let the accompanying fear make us fail to see the sources of happiness that are in front of us in the here and now or lead us to believe that the only way we can be happy is for things to turn out the way that we hope.
I hope that we all enjoy this Christmas season.