By Jaime Davila, MA, LPC, NCC
“A human being without hope is like a walking corpse…” ~ Schumacher, 2003
What drives us human beings to continue living from day to day? Is our drive to live simply a biological mechanism that enables us to survive as a species? What role does hope play? Although at first these may seem like odd questions, if we slow down and really consider them, there is a lot here to explore.
The dictionary defines hope as “wish, expect, look forward to something, of unknown origin, leaping in expectation.” Can hope be how we continue with life despite the imperfection of human societies throughout the world? Hellwig (1993) captures our imperfection when he writes:
In our culture there often is a pervasive despair, ennui, and boredom about even the possibility of finding meaning, purpose or ultimate satisfaction in human existence. This pervasive despair finds ample expression in our national violence, drug abuse (legal and illegal), and in other addictions, such as consumerism and promiscuity.
The emptiness and despair that we experience at certain points in our lives must be explored– rather than avoided. You may ask, why do we need to explore the dark experience of despair? The answer is because in our world of duality, hope cannot exist without despair, just as light defines darkness and happiness defines sadness. Therefore, the emptiness and despair that we experience create the opportunity for hope to arise within us.
The Mythology of Hope
To understand the source of hope, it can be helpful to abandon our traditional scientific way of thinking for something more imaginative. Johnson (1989) writes that myths can portray the human condition with lasting accuracy, giving us a collective image of a universal truth.
The Greek myth of Pandora’s Box provides insight into hope. The myth says that Pandora, the first woman on earth, received a box that she was forbidden to open. As curiosity overcame her, she opened the box and released all the evils of the world, except one, which lay at the bottom of the box. That one was Hope. Although initially contained, Hope was eventually let out to help relieve humanity of our despair (Hope, n.d.).
Hope was personified as Elpis. The image on the right shows Elpis freed of shackles and chains, which represent the despair that stirs up our internal energies to hope for something better. Elpis is stepping forward and looking to the future. Hope waits for us and promises a chance for something better. The something better is signified by rays of light that show us our potential, while steeping us in internal warmth and spiritual energy. Time seems to be abundant in the image, as Elpis does not appear to be in any hurry to get away from this scene. Focused on the future, bathed in sunlight, and moving calmly towards something better, we have our first image of hope.
The Source of Hope
Hope is a difficult concept to capture with mere words. For that reason, literary references and graphic symbols of hope can aid in defining its essence. In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is a Strange Invention,” she writes (Dickinson, n.d.):
Hope is a strange invention
A Patent of the Heart
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out
Of this electric Adjunct
Not anything is known
But its unique momentum
Embellish all we own
The first line, “Hope is a strange invention,” expresses the difficulty of defining something that is internal, primal, soulful, and so much more. And where does hope come from? Dickinson suggests that it comes from our heart: “A patent of the heart.” The heart is our organ of feeling, an organ of true perception. Was Pandora’s Box the human heart captured in mythology? Is it our heart that provides humankind the love and faith necessary for our souls to connect to the world and all it has to offer?
The line, “Not anything is known,” speaks to the mystical or spiritual nature of hope. When we look at faith (not our belief in God but faith as faith itself) as part of hope, we gain a better understanding of its importance. By exploring our internal sensations or inner world, we can discover what Sardello described as faith: the force of the soul. The soul force comprises the internal energy that moves us, our instincts, impulses, and desires (Sardello, 2008). Sardello (2008) also writes that faith attracts courage, patience, endurance, and soul-awareness. These attributes are all required for hope to surface from within our souls, as hope is never absent from us, only obscured by a loss of faith.
The Absence of Hope
Hope is universal. We might not be aware of it and how big of a role it plays in our lives … until it is missing. Its absence shows itself as a dark void, locking us in the past. At the same time, that absence can fuel our desire for something better.
Vincent Van Gogh brilliantly captures despair in his painting, “At Eternity’s Gate” (Major, n.d.). We can feel the hopelessness and loneliness in the figure’s hunched, downward facing posture, fist supporting his head as if life has become completely overwhelming. At the gates of absolute despair, all alone and empty inside, we sense that time goes on forever. The room’s bareness symbolizes the internal emptiness that we feel during difficult times in our lives. We feel alone, and begin to ask ourselves how we got to this dark place and if there is any way out. The experience is unpleasant and unfortunate, but required before we can even imagine what hope might look like. In experiencing the absence of hope, we are better able to experience the essence of hope.
The Need for Hope
Hope points us towards the future for something that will help us through life’s challenges. That something is what eventually gets us through the next moments of our lives. Hope cannot instantly fix our problems or provide a concrete answer to whatever personal issues or questions may be troubling us. It can, however, provide a stable foundation to lean upon as we move forward. This foundation is established during our earliest experiences in infancy. Erikson (1978) wrote:
If Hope is the first and most fundamental human strength emerging from Primal Trust versus Primal Mistrust, it is clear that the human infant must experience a goodly measure of mistrust to learn to trust discerningly, and there would be neither conviction nor efficacy in an overall hopefulness without a (conscious or unconscious) struggle with a persistent temptation to succumb to hopelessness.
If we are fortunate enough to have experienced hope, then hope can feel instantly gratifying. But this is only because we are familiar with the experience. If, on the other hand, we live our lives completely without experiencing our internal world and one day find ourselves in a situation where our logic cannot solve our problems, we stagnate. The need for hope becomes crucial at the moment we acknowledge the presence of despair and, thereby, the absence of hope. When we are no longer able to rationalize life, we might call hope “faith,” as in, “I need to find faith in something again.” It can be a long and slow process to find or regain hope.
When the value of hope is realized or re-awakened, we stop looking outward for answers and being looking inside ourselves. Realizing that something is lacking leads us to the essence of hope. This point is well illustrated by my friend Jay as he describes his experience to me: “I still can’t shake my crushed femur feeling. Cold ghost pain memories of that crimson purple stampede hobbled my brain. What caused those elephants to run?” (J. Johnson, personal communication, April 10, 2010).
Jay describes the memory of his accident as one that haunts him, leaving him stuck in the past, unable to move forward, and confused. He is experiencing the low point of despair and is frustrated that he lacks the patience required to move forward. Allowing for patience, for time to slow, helps us create an inner world within which we can experience our feelings. Sitting with our despair, being present with it, allows our inner world, through our soul, to connect with the outer world, thus allowing hope to flourish when the time is right.
Jay writes, “Finally, I experienced what I can only explain as an out-of-body feeling and was witness to the primal racing of my brain. I acknowledged the charges and turned away with a new purpose” (Johnson, 2010). At this point Jay recognizes that his despair is not a permanent state of mind. We can sense in his words that he is no longer feeling haunted by this experience. In fact, Jay realizes he must experience his daily life to continue moving forward in life. He describes this moment, “Pain will always come into my house. I cannot prevent him from entering … no more Pain and stronger for the next time he enters, seeds of growth planted” (Johnson, 2010). Jay is recharged with an internal light: hope. Jay also learns that by successfully navigating this experience, his interpersonal growth has prepared him for future challenges to his faith and hope.
Despair as Inspiration
Despair, the moment of complete hopelessness, inspires some individuals to do great things. Vincent Van Gogh painted his “Starry Night” while in an asylum at Saint-Remy in 1889 (Vincent, n.d.). Reportedly the painting came to him in a moment of inspiration during an obviously dark period of his life.
Our attention is first drawn to the color yellow and its energy swirling through the painting. Yellow symbolizes wisdom and happiness and has a therapeutic, uplifting effect, protecting us from lethargy and depression. Blue and indigo represent intuition, deep contemplation, spirituality, and peace, key elements that we seek during our search for hope.
Taking a positive view, the tall black structure can symbolize a restful emptiness along with hidden potential and possibilities (The meanings, n.d.).
These colors have in common their presence in our world, a world that is alive and constantly presenting us with images, colors, and rhythms that become part of our daily-lived experiences. Through lived experiences, we can fully connect to our soul if we take the time to do our inner work and create a place for this connection to occur.
As we have seen, literature and art can help communicate the grandness of hope. Smith (2007) summarizes what we as human beings are striving for when we speak of hope:
Because we are incomplete in our human being, we hope for more. We hope to be able to pass from the state of not-yet-being, that is, of minimal being to the state of being-more or being-fulfilled.
In our search to become fulfilled, we must make time to dwell on the experiences and sensations of everyday life. They will lead us to a point where we will be ready and able to re-claim those life experiences that may have gone un-lived and those yet to be lived.
Jaime Davila Jaime Davila is a bilingual therapist specializing in men’s issues. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-340-2799.
Dickinson, E. (n.d.). Hope is a strange invention — – Poem by Emily Dickinson. Famous Poets and Poems – Read and Enjoy Poetry. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets
Erikson, E. (1978). Reflections on Dr. Borg’s life cycle. In E. Erikson (Ed.), Adulthood (pp. 1–31). NewYork: W.W. Norton.
Hellwig, M. (1993). Hope. In M. Downey (Ed.), The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (pp. 506–515). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
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Schumacher, B. (2003). A Philosophy of Hope: Josef Pieper and the Contemporary Debate on Hope (Moral Philosophy and Moral Theology, 5) (1 ed.). New York: Fordham University Press.
Smith, D. (2007). A Phenomenological Reflection on the Experience of Hope. The Humanistic Psychologist, 35, 81-104.
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