What is hope? In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, the writer J.G. Ballard offers an arresting case in point, which I think gets to the heart of the matter.
He tells of the apparently most hopeless moment in his life. He, his wife and young children are on holiday. It is a happy time. Then, suddenly his wife becomes ill. It’s appendicitis and though requiring surgery, should be routine, low risk, uneventful. Only, it doesn’t turn out like that. She doesn’t recover and dies.
He is left bereft and with the responsibility of raising his children. Some friends, he reports, thought the situation hopeless. ‘Many people (who should have known better) openly told me that a mother’s loss was irreplaceable and the children would be affected for ever.’ Some friends. And yet, he refuses their despair. ‘From the start,’ he writes, ‘I was determined to keep my family together.’
It’s worth reflecting on that sentence. It speaks volumes about hope. For one thing, there is the use of the word ‘determined.’ Hope is a decision, a form of courage, a commitment. The same notion of hopeful determination is implicit in Ballard’s reference to ‘from the start.’ If he is living with the end of his wife’s life, he is also brave enough to see it as a new beginning. ‘While there’s life there’s hope,’ as the proverb wisely has it.
This notion of hope as a form of courage is wholly unlike the way the word is deployed in common parlance. ‘I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,’ we say. It’s a travesty of the verb. We might all vow never to use it in that way again! For there is nothing determined or courageous or committed about wishing what might happen with the weather. In fact, you can’t hope anything about the weather in hope’s true sense. Instead, at best, you might be optimistic it won’t rain tomorrow.
Václav Havel summed up the distinction: ‘Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.’ Hope as moral bravery. But that’s not all.
What’s also striking about Ballard is that his hope is not rose-tinted. It’s steely hard. ‘Alcohol was a close friend and confident in the early days,’ he confesses. The death of his wife was agonising, and sometimes the pain was too much to bear. Booze was a necessary anaesthetic. That speaks of the grittiness of hope. For, in truth, hope is informed and strengthened by such realism. It can stare reality in the face, and stare it down. It can cope with the worst that might happen, and can survive to yearn for better.
So hope is neither bland optimism nor wishful thinking. Neither is it the same as the certainty that something will go well, but is rather a stance taken towards something or someone – like Ballard towards his children – that is worth committing to, regardless of what happens. Hope comes from the guts. Hence, hope against hope is powerful enough to change the world.
Mark Vernon’s new book is 'How To Be An Agnostic' (Palgrave Macmillan). www.markvernon.com
Rebecca Solnit, author of ‘Hope in the Darkness: The Untold History of People Power’ will be delivering our May sermon on the subject of hope. To find out more and to book tickets, visit: https://www.theschooloflife.com/Sermons/Rebecca-Solnit-on-Hope
(Image: 'Butter Lamps, Ladakh, India' - Jessie Shane)