Long-Haul Hope

Sometimes, I worry about hope. Huh? Why would anyone worry about hope? Psychologists tell us that we simply fare better if we have hope. It’s one of the attitudes Saint Paul counseled the Christians at Corinth to maintain, along with faith and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). One source lists some of its synonyms: aspiration, desire, wish, expectation, ambition, aim, goal, plan. What could be the harm in any of these? One of my mentors in the Buddhist tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh, says of hope, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today,” (Peace is Every Step). So what gives?

Here’s my concern: Hope sometimes pulls me out of the present, means that I’m projecting my energies on some future point, goal, or aspiration. When I’m doing that, I am less grounded in the present. I’m less focused on living creatively in the present, especially with whatever aspect of the present I would prefer to be different.

Recently, I read a description of hope that appealed to me and addressed these concerns. What’s interesting is that the author was not describing hope! She was describing acceptance, but she describes a hope that makes sense to me. This hope “does not mean denying or diminishing life’s suffering….And it certainly doesn’t mean having a blindly optimistic ‘Pollyanna’ attitude. [Hope] doesn’t mean we have to like or be glad for everything that happens….Rather, it is the opposite of cynicism, hardheartedness, and bitterness. [Hope] means meeting all that life offers with courage, determination, and openness,” (Kathy Reigelman, “Head, Heart, and Holy Ground,” in Karen L. Hutt’s The Call to Care: Essays by Unitarian Universalist Chaplains).

This hope isn’t one that is contained in phrases like “I hope that….” or “I hope she…” It isn’t a hope that seeks a specific outcome. It isn’t situation-specific at all. It’s the attitude with which we seek to approach all situations, an underlying inclination of our heart. It’s an orientation of that aspect of ourselves in which we seek and find meaning and purpose. We may start out with hope oriented toward a specific outcome, but this is the hope that keeps us going when the hoped-for outcome blurs and fades and recedes into the distance.

This hope allows us to keep going in the face of difficulty. It can provide the determination, the courage, the steadfastness that will see us through whatever it is we need to get through. It’s the kind of hope that gets up in the morning, sees the sunrise, and says “Yes, I will get through today.” This hope keeps plugging along.

But not just “keeps on keepin’ on,” as a former colleague of mind was fond of saying. This hope is, as Chaplain Reigelman wrote, is “the opposite of cynicism, hardheartedness, and bitterness.” This hope allows us to keep going with a positive attitude.

This is long-haul hope. It’s the kind of hope that lets cancer survivors go through yet another round of chemo. Or to say “enough is enough.” It’s the hope that keeps sexual abuse or rape survivors going when healing means digging deeper into the muck and mire of what happened. It’s the hope than can encourage someone with a substance abuse disorder to try rehab yet again.

It’s the kind of hope that keeps us working for justice and inclusion for all people in the face of mounting attacks by the powers that be on vulnerable populations. It’s the hope that says “yes, we will install solar panels and we will celebrate them,” even as green initiatives across the country are being undercut and eliminated.

This is hope that can help us stay the course in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and to sense the meaning and purpose of what we’re doing even when that isn’t at all obvious. This is the hope which the glimmers of the world’s possible wholeness promise us, and to which our UU faith call us.

In hope, Rev. Julia