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  • Writer's pictureEd Guzzo

Hope is Action: sometimes hope is futile, but that's beside the point

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

A doctor tends to another's wounds
A doctor tends to another's wounds

Sometimes, I hope for the impossible. I'm most alive when I do. Possibility is beside the point.

The theme for the first week of Advent is HOPE. Both in and out of religious contexts, a common sense understanding of hope considers ‘belief’ to be an essential component. You may hear your pastor say something like “at the heart of our hope in Christ is our belief in Christ." You may hope for the future of the country because you believe, somewhere deep down, the next election will result in positive change. On the surface of things, belief feels important to hope. How could we hope for something we don’t believe possible?

There is a problem with this commonsense assumption. Philosophers Michael Milona and Katie Stockdale argue hope is not grounded in belief, but in how we perceive our experiences. We can hope for things we’re pretty sure, given the evidence, won’t actually come to pass. Yet we can hope for it all the same. Sometimes we try to reject hope we believe to be ill-informed and it can prove difficult to dispel even if we think we know better and seek to reject it. The hope exists despite our belief. We might hope our alcoholic partner will sober up because we need them to. We might hope the cancer will go away because we want to live. Despite possibly believing the hope is groundless, we think about the possibilities and we find hope is practical to maintain or hope ends up being critically important to who we are as a person.

In the Advent readings for this week of hope, we read: “[people] shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:1-5). This passage is a declaration of hope for peace and prosperity.

Whether or not it’s a vain hope is not the point. Even if all evidence points to the contrary, it makes sense to hope because it sustains us, encourages us to act, and constitutes our identity. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, let us live honorably as in the day” (Romans 13:11-14). To hope is to embody our hopes. Hope inspires action and a mode of being -- we become hope in motion.

But would it work? Will the future I hope for come to be? Again, this is not the point. We hope it works, and that is the point. “For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good” (Psalms 122). It is for the sake of peace and prosperity that we hope. It is for the sake of our hopes that we hope.

But hope without action is empty. Milona and Stockdale suggest hope can be dangerous, suggesting our lived experience can lead us to inaction. We might ‘hope’ something gets better without doing anything about it. Their example: someone who does nothing for the environment because they see others fighting climate change. Due to this perception, they experience a sense of ‘hope’ others will take care of the problem. But what kind of hope is this? As it’s said in the Book of James, faith without works is dead. So, too, is hope without action.

Can this empty, dead hope truly be called hope? If someone decides to respond to other's efforts to mitigate climate change with nothing but a smile and unchanged mode of being, it makes no sense to suggest they are being hopeful. Similarly, are people who hope in a Christian message unchanged? Is someone who hopes for good things not changed by their hope? Inaction is not a product of hope, its rosey, feel-good complacency. Wishing for the right things is not hope, it’s merely a "positive thought," one we make to feel good about ourselves.

To hope is to live our hope. Those who hope conduct themselves as if the hope has been realized. We fight climate change as if it’ll save the planet. We defy oppression as if the oppression will stop. We get angry as if the transgressor will care. We stand in solidarity as if we are one. Sometimes we live out a groundless hope, but that isn’t the point.

When we hope, we create and live an experience worth the hoping for. We can witness our lived experience and see it is good. When we live for peace, there is peace. When we live for justice, there is justice. When we live for action, we act. Is it enough? That isn’t the point. We must live for what is good, or there is no point.

There are better and worse things to hope for. There are better and worse ways of living out hope. My point here, in this short Advent-inspired post, is to encourage us to hope, really hope, in the things worth hoping for. Real hope is infectious. I hope, as you read this, real hope finds you.

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