A few days ago, an article I wrote here provoked more commentary—and intelligent commentary, at that—than anything I've written in the last year. And not only in blog-land, where the subject even found its way onto other blogs. In real life, too, discussions about the value and meaning of hope in human happiness found their way into lots of face-to-face discussions.
The premise of that article was this: I challenged the idea that hope is forever and always a prime human virtue. I suggested, in fact, that it can even be the driving force behind unhappiness.
It's easy to see why this was a controversial post. We have all been raised to believe that hope, along with faith and love and charity, is one of the very principle virtues by which people should live. It's in the Bible, after all. To say you're "hopeless" is thought to be represent the ultimate in discouragement and depression.
So at the risk of reigniting the firestorm, I'd like to address the subject again, and explain a little more about where my thoughts came from.
As tradition has it, we believe that hope is the force that brings positive change about. This is the standard logic, and it goes something like this: 1. We find ourselves in an unpleasant or painful situation. 2. This leads to hope—which we can define as a "visualization, or conception of a future situation which we will find more pleasant than the present one." 3. The energy of hope fuels action toward the hoped-for goal. 4. Upon achieving the desired goal, happiness is ours.
When we are happy, we generally assume it is because our hopes have been fulfilled.
But when I looked closely at myself, I began to see that this was not always the case for me. Sometimes, sure, it did work exactly that way. Confronted with a painful infection, visualizing, then seeking medical help, indeed led to a reduction of pain and more contentment.
But not always. Not even most of the time. Sometimes, all that really came for me was the faintest of rest periods before another round of hoping began. And then I began to see instances where the equation ran something like this:
1. I find myself with a hope, a desire, for something different. 2. This leads to dissatisfaction in the present circumstance, unhappiness. 3. I surrender hope (in the first instances, this was done somewhat experimentally). 4. I found that the here-now became much more immediate, more energizing. 5. I was considerably happier.
In other words, it was not an effort to change outer circumstances that brought about happiness. As often as not, it was the subtle inner adjustment that was far more necessary and effective.
This explained, in part, a most interesting phenomenon—the fact that happiness often seems to be largely independent of outer circumstances. On a day where I've arisen on the wrong side of the bed, there is nothing whatsoever uniquely awful about my circumstances, yet I might be mildly depressed and unhappy all day. But on other days, quite a lot of unpleasantness can occur, yet it doesn't really affect my general cheerfulness for life.
Or perhaps you, too, know a few people who will treat a simple rain shower as a personal insult to their happiness. And maybe you know other people able to live with cancer even while being exceedingly happy.
So what this all implies to me is that happiness isn't always about the outer circumstances.
Often, it's about the inner perception.
Those of you with strong beliefs in the traditional value of hope have a very legitimate comeback to this thesis. You might argue, for example, that if you simply tolerate every circumstance that happens to you, you will just wind up staying in situations that are demeaning, degrading, or even dangerous.
But it really hasn't worked out that way for me, and I'm certainly not recommending that we tolerate situations that are intolerable. That's stupidity. Faced with unpleasant circumstances, I always respond and react to them. But I'm not aware that hope is really present at all. In fact, taking action all by itself seems to eliminate the physical sensation of hoping. Responding to pain and suffering, it seems, doesn't require hope; it just requires practical sense and the surrender of inaction.
And it's been interesting to note that even the staunchest defenders of hope have told me that at those times when they are utterly happy and content, they're not hoping for anything at all. They are just thrilling to the moment.
Did they get there because their hoping has been successful? Or by turning loose of hope for a moment or two?
I have to tell you, with all honesty, that I'm happier when I'm not hoping.