The pain of hope


Psychologist Erik Erikson (creative naming, Erikson elders) has argued that instilling hope in our children is one of the most important tasks of a parent. Hope is affiliated with security, confidence, and a good sense of self. One study argues for hope as an indicator of psychological strength (and thus a component of well-being) in adolescents.

It seems that hope is valuable for youth and in our youth. Great?

I find sunrises so hopeful and lovely. The bastards.

I wonder how that holds into adulthood. It seems like the effect should be the same, but lately I’ve found that practicing hope is exhausting and the times it pops up unintentionally seem always to be followed by a painful jolt of the reminder that “um, this will end badly because it HAS ALWAYS ended badly.”

Is hope a virtue? Is it an emotion?* Is it both? When thinking about hope as an optimistic view towards the achievement of our goals, it seems it can function as both. It can be something we intentionally do (“I choose to believe this goal is still possible for me”) and also can be a rather instinctive feeling that motivates us to continue working towards that goal.

But what happens when hope keeps us focused on a goal that… maybe we shouldn’t be focused on? That is, in all or in our particular reality, too far out of reach? And how do we know when a goal is attainable, and thus we should “put on” hope in order to power through to the achievable (good) goal, and how do we know when it’s time to “abandon hope” because the goal it’s been pushing us towards is unrealistic, or no longer serves our highest well-being?

Aka, how do we know when hope is being an A+ wingman or just an asshole?

I guess like all things, hope is best measured against what we know of the goal itself. If what we are trying to achieve or what we want to happen proves itself to us time and again that it is unrealistic (some people will always be untrustworthy; some situations cannot be transcended in the ways we wish they could), hope can be more damaging than good. It can be painful, and can even keep us bound to something painful for far longer than is necessary or healthy.

If the goal is still good and attainable and desirable, then hope is a good thing. Virtuous hope must take into account its particular situation and charge or retreat accordingly.

(Sometimes I really think Aristotle’s Golden Mean is the zenith of virtue ethics. We peaked early.)

If you can’t tell, I’m facing some possible redirecting of my goals and pursuits in life. It’s unnerving, and it makes my relationship with hope complicated. Sometimes I get angry when I feel hope welling up — “WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE AND WE KNOW HOW THIS TURNS OUT. WHY ARE YOU STILL PRETENDING OTHERWISE.” At other times, I feel relief when I feel hope welling up — we have no way of knowing how the future will turn out, so hope is a reminder that the way I see it playing out in my head is not the guaranteed or only way things could turn out.

Maybe the “solution” to the pain of hope has less to do with evaluating the attainability of my goals and more to do with learning to hold my specific goals more lightly in my hands. To keep specific goals from meaning too much to my overall judgment of the goodness of my life and self.

Maybe what I need to do is find better ways to value myself and my life and thus redefine the purpose of my goals — specific achievements intended to, but not indispensable to, increase of my well-being. Simply put, maybe I should realize that my goal is not “to get a PhD,” or “to get a promotion,” or “to have kids,” but simply “to be happy.” Because that’s really what I’m aiming for. All those goals are things I want because I think they will make me happy. So perhaps if I can hold those specific, external goals more lightly, seeing them as “possibly but not certainly making me happier” and being willing to redirect my efforts when something shows it will not do that larger thing.

Maybe my hope should simply be tied to the fact that I know I can contribute to my own happiness, that I am the biggest contributor to my own happiness. Maybe the Stoics are right and I should focus mostly on understanding and regulating my own attitudes and internal states, since that’s all I can “control” anyway. That’s a huge adjustment, and one that will probably show itself to be needed in many new ways big and small as my internalized, subconscious goals reveal themselves. The up-welling of hope is a good indication that I have made some goal important to me, and at least I can take that opportunity to understand myself better and evaluate (and perhaps change) the goals I have internalized as being crucial to my value and well-being. Those opportunities are always worth taking advantage of.

*Thinking of C.R. Snyder’s cognitive model of hope (1994). He defines emotions as mental and bodily expressions of our belief in how a situation or person affects our ability to meet our desired goals.

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