To hope

“To hope” is to maintain an expectation, but often a vain, idle, naive one, something unlikely to come to past by sheer logic or probability. What is missing in the bare notion of hoping is the application of context. Can we expect anything beyond the obvious, the day-to-day reality that faces us? Are we avoiding rather than comprehending reality? To look to the long-term at a possible change in one’s life means to apply a plan, a method, a progression, with the expectation of results. But to stand aside and hope without changing attitude or behavior or practice is trivial and not serious.

In Buddhism hope is not wishfulness but the concrete expectation that a given method leads to a given result. The process is experiential and tested by practice, a kind of scientific method. The first premise is to understand the context of a given situation, enumerate and describe the relevant elements and factors, assess them, and begin research or experimentation. This was the Buddha’s method sitting beneath the tree. It is the method of someone who wants to learn about how to build a house or how to address a disease or how to put away a bad habit. Such a method does not build hope or false expectations. It busies itself with that which is necessary to accomplish the task. And if the results are not satisfactory, it is because of the wrong premises, or an incomplete understanding of the context, or simply one’s flagged efforts. It is not a failure of hope, nor a failure on the part of the individual. We can’t do everything we want to.

In the Western world, hope is a complement of belief: one believes then trusts, because the belief is so positive, so illuminating, so awe-inspiring, that to trust that it is the right target or trajectory in life must be good. In Christianity hope is a virtue. In the sense of complementing a belief, hope is not wishing but the expectation of positive outcome, expectation of the efficacy of pursuing a certain behavior or path. One follows the moral code, let us say, and the result is a good behavior. One did not hope that this would be the result, but rather it should have been by definition. To trust in this way, as with the method of the Buddha, is perhaps not the conventional understanding of hope, but it is sustainable.

Hope is trivialized daily in a modern materialist culture. “I hope I win the lottery” or “I hope I find happiness” are the typical sayings and mental constructions of hope, skipping the parameters of reality and begging the question of what the person is doing to attain the so-called goals. Such vanity is worse than wishing, which, after all, everyone knows carries no effort or self-discipline; such vanity relies on the culture rewarding conformity to its material standards.

In the end it is better not to hope, not to make vain expressions of desire for this or that outcome to life, even the most serious. Often attributed to Goethe is the saying that “Hope is better than despair,” but despair is not the opposite of hope. The opposite of hope is “not hope.” To not hope does not suggest despair or resignation or fatalism but rather stoicism, understanding, tranquility of mind, and an affirmation in the harmony of the universe.