Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hope Still Flies

"Hope, to me, is wishing for something good to be true. I believe it is inherent in all of mankind to hope, not because we need to escape where we are, but because we have souls- and those souls were made for something greater than this world. I write about it so often because I think it compels us all. I want to make songs that people at any intellectual level can feel stirred by. Hope is the basest of human feelings to me, the feeling that all emotion springs from."
-Reese Roper

“Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” - C.S. Lewis

I had the pleasure of attending the final Stuck with Virtue Conference at Berry College back in November. The last panel was on Higher Education, namely, if it really existed. Since education is tending toward more and more practical job training, the question was posited if truly liberal education--that is, education that liberates the soul and teaches us how to be free of our baser instincts--can endure. One presenter made the forlorn point that liberal education is necessary for civic virtue... and that without it, we can expect an increasingly productive work force without a clue about who they are and how they should spend their mounting resources. After the last panel concluded, everyone migrated to the ballroom for a catered lunch. Faculty representing several of the attending schools stood and offered final thoughts. Most expressed gratefulness for the event and the presentations. Then a faculty member from Berry stood and directly addressed the bleak professor from earlier. "I think in all our talk about the loss of civic virtue, I think we need a healthy reminder of one of the virtues you missed... a Christian one. The virtue of hope." It was this scene and the interview with Reese Roper of Five Iron Frenzy I did with Mousertime that caused me to mull and ponder on this elusive virtue.

What is hope?

Hope is the belief that the world, both in its temporal circumstances and its ontological value, will be somehow better tomorrow than it is today for the whole of mankind and for the individual himself; it is grounded in a faith that nothing is outside the purview of a benevolent higher power which controls the cosmos and responds to our personal desire for the world to improve.

This is not to say that the world always gets better in the way that the hoper thinks it should. Sometimes circumstances become tragically worse rather than better. Imagine the young father diagnosed with a terminal cancer. He and his children hope that he will overcome every day, yet every day he grows weaker and weaker with chemotherapy until finally he dies. It can't be said that their circumstances became more subjectively favorable. It might even appear to them that their hope was in vain. Maybe hope isn't even real.

This is not to say that hope doesn't have any empowering component either. Consider the case of the man paralyzed by a back injury. Doctors tell him that he will probably never walk again. He returns home dejected, thinking that nothing can be done for him. Then he hears the story of an unorthodox physical therapist in town, reputed to have a greater success rate than any local therapist. Still unimpressed, he wallows in depression until he sees the first shaky steps of his granddaughter. Inspired, the handicapped man hopes that the therapist can help him walk again. So he goes to the therapist week after week, straining through pain and frustration failure after failure. The hope of walking with his granddaughter keeps his perseverance strong and he finally makes those first wobbly steps himself. His hope made him strong and against all odds he persevered. Surely hope can be powerful.

But was his hope any stronger than the family of the first example? Certainly not. Likewise, could not one imagine a scenario in which the body of the grandfather failed him altogether in spite of all hope? Or what if, in the first example, somehow the father's will to live overcame defeated cancer against all odds? That too is not all that alien a story. Thus we must concede that the strength of hope is probably not the variable here, lest we accuse the young father of failing his family by not willing or hoping hard enough. The circumstances were simply different.

True, there was a component of man changing his circumstances in the second example. The crippled grandfather could have simply hoped from the wheelchair that his station would change. Though he hoped until his death, if he did nothing he would (more than likely) remain as he was. In fact, hope was the impetus to action in both stories. The young father and the grandfather both hoped that their condition would improve, then they acted in accord with a realistic hope. Neither man can be faulted for a weak attempt at healing or weak hope for things to get better.

The variable is the providential element of hope. There must be an unseen power which manipulates circumstances beyond the control of man. It is this which inspires man to hope in the face of uncertainty at all. Some will object that they don't believe in any providence of any sort, that no God or gods or force or energy exist or are benevolent friends of man. However, their lives betray them because they certainly hope whether or not they mean to. So why hope if things are truly left to chance? It won't do any good. It can't be chalked up to an evolutionary psychological leftover. For how could it benefit survival to deny capricious chance? A real survivor is one who accepts a situation as it is, not how he wishes it were.

Again, it must be seen that man is more than a mere self-perpetuator. He is a soul with needs, crying out into the silence for an answer. Why cry if there is no answer? Why hope if there are no hands to carry you through? Why ask if there's anyone listening to the minorly and majorly hopeful thoughts floating about in the mind if no one else can ever hear them?

And finally, most poignantly, something must be said about when things don't turn out like we hoped. Does God delight in dashing our hopes? Here inquiry must cease. This visceral pain won't be assuaged away by clever rhetoric. Really only two responses present themselves. The first is to walk away from all hope and transcendence in disgust. Burn all the hopeful books and journals written, ignore all the wisdom of the ages for it cannot complete its ontological explanation of human suffering. The second is to take by faith that sometimes things great and small don't work out like we hoped because God knows better. Our hopes may not have been misguided but short-sighted. Our hope that things will work out in the end isn't always empirical but it has proven logical. Logic requires a kind of faith that our thoughts and concepts tell us true things about the world we live in. And if you have the faith to be logical, how small a step it is to have the faith in the superlogical, things above and beyond what we can conceive and imagine. Tragedy will become victory when the superlogical is revealed. That is the greatest hope of all.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
-Emily Dickinson