Daring to Hope
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 7, 2001
Victor Frankl ranks as one of the great figures in psychology and psychotherapy of the 20th century. He was a great intellectual, an esteemed scholar, and a best-selling author. But his most important credential, perhaps, was that he was a Nazi concentration camp survivor. Certainly, the heart and soul of his work, especially his masterwork, Man’s Search for Meaning, emerged out of what he observed and experienced in the camps. During this most horrible period in his life, Frankl, like so many others, lost all of his family and most of his possessions. Yet, like many others, he survived the horror.
Of course, there were so many others-- too many others-- who didn’t survive. Some were sent to the gas chambers. Others were shot or beaten to death. Many died from various diseases. But there were also those, Frankl tells us, who merely languished, faded away, and then finally died. There came a moment, Frankl wrote, when the people around just knew that a fellow prisoner had given up hope, and was preparing to die. “He would go quiet, smoke a last cigarette he had been hoarding, refuse to get out of bed, ignore threats or blows, and soon, usually within a day, the prisoner would die.”
Years and years before others saw it, Frankl had discerned the connection between mind and body, the relationship between attitude and health-- between finding meaning in life and survival itself. He and those like him had survived the camps, Victor Frankl maintained, because they had never given up hope. What Frankl observed was the value of hope, even in the most hopeless-- the most deplorable and ghastly of conditions. “Whoever is joined with all the living has hope,” the book of Ecclesiastes tells us. And, Frankl showed, whoever has hope stays joined with life-- indeed, stays alive. Daring to hope can make all the difference between life and death. Hope makes all the difference between meaning in life and meaninglessness in life.
One of the (relatively) few bits of Latin I remember from high school is the Roman proverb “Dum spiro, spero.” “Dum spiro, spero-- While I breathe, I hope.” (Of course, these were the Nixon years, so some of us of a more liberal sort delighted, for quite different reasons, in the phrase “Dum spiro”-- we thought it pertained to the intellectual abilities of Nixon’s Vice-president, Spiro Agnew.) But the phrase has a deeper meaning than that, and it’s no accident that those two Latin words-- spiro, spero-- to breathe, to hope-- are so similar; they’re etymologically related; sort of linguistic cousins. Dum spiro, spero. While I breathe, I hope. Or, another way of putting it is “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Whoever is joined to life has hope.
It’s also interesting, I think, that in Spanish the word for to hope “esperar” is the same as the word for “to wait”. Espero means “I hope”; it also means “I wait”. There is pregnant in each moment of our living upon this earth an anticipation of what is to come next-- a sense of not knowing what awaits us-- coupled with a sense not of dread, but of hope.
One more etymological nugget I never knew is that the English word “hope” is also related to the word “hop”. When we hope, we spring into life. We jump at the possibilities. We leap at the prospect of what might be awaiting us. While we breathe, we hope. While we wait, we hope. And while we hope-- why not hope?
But what kinds of hope do we have? What are we hoping for?
Genuine hope is not the same as blind optimism. Nor is it the same as a false and fantastic, unrealistic hope. You can’t fritter your life away, hoping that some day you’re gonna hit the Megabucks and then-- abracadabra!-- all your troubles will be over. (I mean: buy scratch tickets if you want to. I’ve got nothing against that, really. But you’d better have a contingency, just in case your ship doesn’t come in. ’Cuz it probably won’t.)
There’s nothing wrong with young people wanting to be rock stars, or movie stars, or professional athletes. It’s good to hone those skills; it’s good to dream big dreams. But we also learn, as we get older, that we need to make other plans, too-- and have more realistic hopes. (I mean, my next book might be the one that sells hundreds of thousands of copies, and wins the Pulitzer Prize. But in the meantime, I think I’ll keep my day job.)
We can’t live life according to false hopes-- finding the perfect job; having the perfect family; waiting around for the “perfect someone” who is going to come into our lives and take away all of our pain and troubles and lead us into that never-never-land of “happily ever after”. That’s not the way life works for most of us (or any of us). We’d have a better chance of being struck by lightening!
False hopes like these lead to tragedy; they waste our time; they can lead us to deep disillusionment with life. When we hope for something that can never be, then we set ourselves up for despair. If we hang around waiting to win the lottery, or to be discovered by some big Hollywood producer, or for a perfect spouse (or a perfect God) who’s going to do it all for us, we’ll be able to do nothing for ourselves. We’ll become paralyzed and irresponsible. That kind of hope isn’t worth having.
Nor is a hope that is too small. Our hopes can be so small, so truncated, so circumscribed that we enslave our imaginations, enslave ourselves in the prison of our own lowered expectations. Of course, we probably won’t ever find the “perfect” spouse. But that doesn’t mean that we have to stay with spouses who are abusive or demeaning or who don’t appreciate our beings or our gifts. It doesn’t mean that such an oppressive life is the “best” we can hope for.
Of course, we probably won’t ever write that book that sells a million copies and makes us rich. We probably won’t ever sing on stage at Carnegie Hall. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try new things-- that we shouldn’t cultivate our skills and stretch our imaginations and talents. It doesn’t mean that a dull, routine, dreary, day in, day out life is the “best” we can hope for.
What we hope for is not trivial. It is an important component of our bringing to fruition the vision of the kind of person we see ourselves as being deep down inside. It is at the center of who we are as spiritual beings. As Victor Frankl pointed out, what we hope for-- what we believe in-- can make all the difference in the world.
Hope is not blind optimism, detached from the realities of life. It is not pie-in-the-sky, “everything is beautiful” utopianism. True, deep hope is not some kind of childish fantasy we refuse to shake.
No, real and durable hope is born from real life; it is born on the vortex between the world as it is and as it ought to be. Life is lived on the cusp between hope and history. It is hope carries us human ones on the sacred vector toward life’s divine possibilities.
Hope accepts life as it is, right now. It does not pretend that life is a bed of roses. Yes, it says, there is hatred and violence and ignorance and meaninglessness. All these things are part of human existence, and probably always will be. But hope accepts life, in all its imperfection; it lives life as it needs to be lived, and then-- it waits. It awaits the future that is not yet born. It stares out at the blank page that has not yet been written. And as it waits, it delicately, gently points the way forward toward what can be.
Hope reminds us that we can live in relationships where we love one another. We can hope for a community-- and even a world-- where all children are cared for, and educated, and given something to hope for. We can live in a world where all sons and daughters of God are guaranteed basic human freedoms; where their needs are met; where their sacred diversity is appreciated and celebrated. We can hope to do our parts to take care of our world, to take care of one another, to make this world better for our having been here.
There is so much to hope for. There is so much to believe in. There is so much work for us to do together, clinging together, hand in hand.
A young British couple in their 20s were on holiday in Indonesia. They had been talking about their future, especially whether or not they should get married. She wanted to; he didn’t. Suddenly, the ferryboat they were on ran aground during a storm, started taking on water, and began to sink. They clambered for a lifeboat, but so did too many others, and soon, the lifeboat, too, foundered. So, the young couple set off swimming, calling out for each other in the storm. Finally, they came to a spar, and clung to it for dear life, waiting to be rescued. Eventually, five other passengers joined them, but one by one, the others ran out of strength, let go of the spar, and dropped off into the water to drown. Finally, after thirteen hours, help managed to arrive through the storm, and the couple was rescued.
Asked later how they had managed to hold on for so long, the couple could only smile shyly. At last, the young woman responded: “Well, we remembered all the things we had done together. We told jokes. We sang to each other.” “We promised that if we made it, we’d get married straight away,” the man added. “It was almost like a test,” the young woman went on. “As though some great power had asked us a question.How could we let go then?”
It is our hope which keeps us afloat.
Hope opens our eyes to Life-- in all of its dimensions: all of its sadness and pain; all of its emptiness and despair-- and, all of its glory, all of its beauty, all of its love. It shows us Life in all its fullness, and it dares to ask us the question: “How can we let go?”
But hope also reminds us that it is not enough to cling. It is not enough to drift passively through life. Hope is not passive; it means active engagement in life. There is a responsibility of hope. Commitment and service and responsibility are the price we pay for the gift of life we have been given.
Where does this hope come from? I would say that it is a gift of God (a gift of Life). “Hope is a breathtaking dimension of the human spirit,” wrote Vaclav Havel. “It is a dimension of our souls.”
Where does it come from?
It is said that when God finished with Creation, She had a desire to leave something behind, just a small piece of the delight of divinity, which she named “Hope”. But God was a little bit of a trickster, too, so she didn’t want it to be too easy for human beings to find. “Where should I hide it?” she asked the stars and planets and all other living creatures. “Where should I hide it?”
“How about up in the heavens, with us?” one of the stars suggested.
And God thought about it, and said finally, “No, they’re too clever for that. One day, human beings will invent rocket ships and go and explore the stars, and then, they’ll find it there.”
“Well, how about down here with us?” asked the depths of the ocean. And God thought about it, and said finally, “Nah. Some day, they’ll explore the depths of the sea, too. So, they’ll find it there.”
Then all of a sudden, God had an epiphany: “Ah-ha!” she said. “I know now where to hide this special something, this little bit of me called ‘Hope’. I’ll hide it inside of them. They’ll never look there!”
Wherever it comes from, I know where we can find it: deep within our souls, within our spirits, within us, and among us.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all,” wrote Emily Dickinson.
“Hope is a breathtaking dimension of the human spirit... It is a dimension of our souls.”
Hope is the voice of God speaking in our souls. It is the light of God shining in our eyes. It is the power of God working through our human hands.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.
Holdfast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Hold fast to dreams. Hold fast to hope. For when we hope, we touch (and reflect back to the world) the deepest wellsprings of our true humanity.