Hope versus Despair
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
In this year, what are you looking forward to? What out there in the future really excites you, grabs you, makes you want to get up and get going in the morning? What are you living toward that fills your days with meaning, your months with promise, your years with hope?
Strange creatures that we are, we need more than food and home in order to survive. Indeed all kinds of studies indicate that it is hope and future that keeps us going, keeps the immune system tuned up and fighting the bugs, generates the resources to head us toward health. If we don’t have something out there ahead of us that excites and galvanizes us, we are in trouble.
An Israeli study demonstrates that hope, if it is serious, if it is long term, leads to physiological changes that can improve the body’s resistance. In these studies they have found two hormones that are strongly affected by an attitude of hope. We are indeed, as the Apostle Paul says, saved by hope.
So how do we come to hope? How do we help ourselves maintain a forward looking, vital excitement about life? Three words – fantasy, faith, feet.
Fantasy – you have got to be able to image the future in your head with sufficient vividness that it begins to have power over your emotions and legs. What are your goals? What do you really want bad enough to give hours and discipline and energy to see it become reality?
I like the little second grader in a parochial school. Her teacher said, “One day as part of religion class, I asked the children to draw a picture of what they’d do if they could spend the day with Jesus. The pupils tackled the project eagerly. After a few minutes, this one little girl came up to my desk with her almost finished drawing in hand. “Miss Lopresti,” she sad, “How do you spell Nieman Marcus?”
The power of tomorrow to stir and invigorate us is in direct relationship to its vividness in our mind. People anticipate travel in part because they have colorful fantasies about what Venice or Africa will be like . So if we want to live positive and hopeful, we must take time and thought to imagine a good tomorrow.
You cannot live with hope unless you develop a powerful imagination, unless you can see a future out there that captivates you, excites you, mobilizes you. Powerful images – great fantasies.
Indeed, little is accomplished in this world without some powerful vision in someone’s mind of what the future might hold. Friends of Walt Disney visited Disney World down in Florida at its opening. Disney had died some time before. One friend commented, “It is so sad that Walt did not live to see this marvelous place.” To which another responded, “But he did see it. That is why it has become reality.”
I think this is why the Biblical heroes , again and again, paint pictures of the future. In the Old Testament the prophets dream of a day when everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Jesus sees a future of banquet when all shall be welcome at the table, and John speaks of a city of God where God will dwell with us and we shall be his people.
But again with this vision and fantasy, there must be faith, the faith that the future will be good no matter what comes. Much of the sadness and despair that I encounter is the downside of too narrow and unrealistic hopes, too self-centered goals.
We become too invested in a specific script or story. “If I don’t get that promotion … if my children don’t settle near by and come by … if Marshall doesn’t make the football team … if we can’t afford a certain life style and run with certain people … then life will be a failure, the boyhood dream, the college ambition, will burn out in ashes.” When we wrap our whole life, all our emotions and energy around one narrow possibility, and then lose, we lose life itself in despair and defeat.
Psychiatrists I know report working with early successes in the business and professional world. They are encountering young men and women who have made it by thirty-five, they have lived out the script, achieved the cultural dream they bought from parents and community, have attended the right schools, found the right kind of mate, have advanced along the right career track, have accumulated the right toys, but find themselves restless, dissatisfied, empty.
Partly, my psychiatrist friends say, their problem is the fact that the early dreams and fantasies were rather self-centered and without regard for the rewards of community and service. It is as though God cursed them. He gave them what they wanted. So it is no accident that in Old and New Testament, real hope is always linked to a larger world than the self , to the world of justice and love. Paul writes, “Each of you must consider his neighbor and think what is for his or her good. Accept one another … and the God of hope will fill you with all joy and peace.”
Reality is this: sooner or later the narrow and selfish dreams shatter on the reality that life is never as we wish and plan it. Peter DeVries, the novelists, caught this when he said that a good novel, like real life, has a beginning, a muddle, and an end.
In one of his post-war speeches Winston Churchill observed, “…the human story does not always unfold … on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes two and two make five or minus three; and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the problem and leaves the class in disorder and the teacher with a black eye. The element of the unexpected and the unforeseeable is what gives relish to life and saves us from the bureaucrats.”
So in the biblical faith hope is always spoken of as hope in God. Hope tied not to our own dreams and desires finally, but hope resting in the conviction that whatever comes God has something surprising that will turn out to work for our good and future. And I confess that as I look back on my life now , I see that some of the best things that have happened to me have been things, indeed people, whom I would never have fantasized for my future.
So dreams, fantasies, rich and revitalizing – of course. I have them, fantasies about a birthday and travel and a book and time with family. But, I trust, open to all kinds of unpredictable possibilities. It seems to me that here is where faith and hope come together in team, where Biblical hope differs from optimism.
You know the line that the pessimism looks at a glass and sees it as half empty, the optimist looks at the glass and sees it as half full. Well now I am told that the consultant looks at that glass and says, “It looks to be as if the glass is twice as big as you need.”
Optimism is the belief that my dreams will all come true. Whereas Biblical hope, the hope of Jesus, is faith that God is with us in life, no matter what comes, even if our own dreams do not come true, creating good even out of bad, wisdom out of disaster, deeper love out of pain and reversal. Biblical faith enables us to hope no matter what comes. No matter how we must revise the dream.
David Redding tells of his Aunt Emily. Redding says that if he were asked who, through his life, had provided the most persuasive testament to the Christian faith, he might have dropped a few names like the theologian Paul Tillich or the mystic Dionysius the Areopogyte, but if he were really to tell the truth, it would be none other than his great Aunt Emily. Aunt Em, he says, was one of those who seemed to take everything that befell her as a personal favor. She was one of those who embraced unavoidable trouble with the words, “This will do me a world of good.” She may have been too much of a Pollyanna for most people’s tastes, but she knew what it meant to have a forgiving attitude toward life.
Redding writes that “While the rest of us picked and groaned at the lunch tossed at us at some truck stop, Aunt Em actually cut her way through the pork chops, shaking her head in disbelief that such marvelous food could be found in central Ohio. If the house were full, and all the beds were taken, one could tease her; ‘Aunt Em, because of the mob staying here tonight, you have to sleep on a plank floating in the flooded basement’. She would instantly reply, “That’s my favorite way. It will be so much better for my back than all those squishy mattresses. I know it will do me a world of good.” When she died, writes Redding, “They did not send me her final words. It was not necessary. For I feel sure the final words her lips would form would be the ones I had heard her use across the years. I can see her old, wrinkled, gray head, nodding as she breathed her last, “This will do me a world of good.”
Trust in God gives to hope the confidence that even when the dreams must change, there is still good ahead – and God. Perhaps that is why we often encounter intense hope right in the midst of situations where there seems no basis for hope.
Marlene and I experienced such hope recently in our visits to Bethlehem. Christian Arabs we have known for years, still struggling to survive in a town surrounded now by a wall, a town whose whole economy depends upon tourists. But the Kando family has scratched enough together to build a new shop. And the owners of a small restaurant, brothers Sameer and Jamal Kara’a have enlarged and modernized their place. But neither of them have had any business to speak of for five years. But they have acted in faith, in hope, and while these may not save the businesses in the long run, their faith and hope have surely saved them … from defeat … from despair. I cannot tell you the impact not only of their friendship but their indomitable spirit of hope, in a situation where seems so little grounds for hope. They are even remodeling their church there in destitute Bethlehem…. in hope.
So real hope is active, not passive. Hope has feet. The Jordan does not part until the priests are willing to put their feet in the water. Jesus does not know resurrection until he is willing to walk the way to the cross.
In this sense, active hope is so much more than just waiting around for something good to happen. It is acting in such a way as to help create the future hoped for. Pessimism and despair work to bring into being the very future we fear. Hope helps shape the future for which we hope.
All of which leads to a report which our two groups in Israel received from two representatives of the Israeli-Palestinian Families’ Forum, a group established in 1995 and now involving over 500 families, half Israeli, half Palestinian who share above all one thing. They have lost family, children, parents, grandparents in the bloodshed inflicted by both sides in the conflict that rages there.
They sat before us as brothers. We had with us Rami Elhanan, Jewish and a commercial designer. He is married, and lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Nunt who teaches at the Hebrew University and was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights by the European parliament. Her father was a decorated General in the Israeli army. Rami and Nunt have two sons 26 and 24 who have completed their military service and now study in Paris. Rami and Nunt had one daughter, Smadar, born on Yom Kippur September 17, 1983. As Rami put it, she was a lovely 14-year old, sparkling and full of life, simply walking with her friends when she was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber.
We had with us Jalal Shuhial Khudiari, a school principal in the West Bank town of Jenine, although he has received no salary for seven months. He lived there with his parents, five sisters and two brothers, until they felt it necessary to flee to Amman, Jordan. Enroute they were attacked by an Israeli plane, and he lost both mother and father and two sisters. He said that from that day he thought he would never speak to an Israeli. He was convinced that whoever spoke Hebrew was an assassin. Then one day he received a call from Arab friends inviting him to a meeting in Jerusalem of the Families’ Forum. “ I went. There were Israeli and Palestinian families. All spoke of their shared pain, and of what we not gained from violence and hatred. So when Rami called, I felt I had a duty to come to speak to you. “His eight hour journey from Jenine, which in normal times would have taken two, was to tell us his story.
Rami summed it up with these words, “When a tragedy happens to a person and his world collapses around him, he unwillingly finds himself at a junction and must choose one of two directions. He can sink into the depths of hatred, depression, emptiness, and despair. Or there is another possibility. He can try to understand, to overcome the tragedy, gather his strength, speak to peoples’ hearts, share a common pain.
“My starting point is my true and forthright love for Israel and a deep concern for the fate of the country. I am not speaking for the Palestinians. I am certainly aware of the cruelty of their fight against us. But I believe that we don’t have to surrender to our basest instincts. We don’t have to act from burning hatred; after all we are human beings, not animals. We lost our children but not our heads. We must maintain our hope that there are other possibilities. Otherwise, after the tragedy happens there is nothing left…”
“We must maintain our hope.” As they struggle to do so, I don’t know if it will change much on the ground. It will certainly be a powerful witness that hatred can be overcome. And it certainly will enable these friends to save their humanity in the face of such hate; it will, in a very real sense, save their souls.
I don’t know what putting feet under our hopes might mean for us this day, this week. All I am saying is that it is the hopeful, determined spirit that is willing to put feet under its dreams that wins out in life.
Copyright 2006 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.