A ship ought not to be held by one anchor, nor life by a single hope.Epictetus
To hope or not to hope… that is the question.
Hope is a powerful thing, it can give us direction like a light at the end of the tunnel of dark times. It can also lead to soul-crushing grief when our hoped-for outcome does not come to pass. The phrase “abandon hope” is usually a curse, threatening a never-ending darkness ahead. “Abandon hope, ye who enter here” does not inspire any confidence in the traveler who comes across that sign. Even so, it could also be an admonition to focus on the present moment and let go of the promise of a better future. Make your choice to be happy and satisfied in the here and now rather than hope for something to change in your future.
I have been reflecting on and wrestling with this quote quite a bit lately. It is from the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca but it reflects a sentiment I’ve come across from time to time: the idea that hope is actually a hinderance to happiness and peace.
On the one hand, I get it. I have seen firsthand how devastating it can be when you put your hopes in something that doesn’t come to pass. When you’re going through a difficult situation, hoping for a better outcome can be a gift you give yourself to deal with the struggles you are going through. Allowing ourselves to hope for a better future can be incredibly hard. Choosing to hope in the face of darkness can take a considerable amount of inner strength. And so, when things don’t go the way we wanted and our hopes are dashed, it hurts. It can hurt a lot and we might find ourselves questioning the value of hope in the first place. Why hope when disappointment hurts so much?
After a few days of reflecting on Seneca’s words, my mind reminded me of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. For me, recalling the Four Noble Truths helps to answer the question of hope. Spoiler: as with basically everything, it’s a practice of balance.
The Four Noble Truths are a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. Paraphrased:
1. Suffering is a part of life.
2. This suffering had a cause. That cause is our attachments or cravings.
3. The end of suffering comes when we are able to let go of our cravings.
4. There is a path to the end of suffering.
Back on the question of hope, the Four Noble Truths remind us that our suffering is not caused by allowing ourselves to hope for the better. No, suffering arises when we allow our attachment to that hope to take over our psyche and blind us to reality. Hope can be a great comfort in hard times but even as we hope for the best, it’s important to remember that we can’t control everything that happens. No matter how much we might want and hope for things to go our way… sometimes they just don’t. That’s life. We can’t control the outcome, we can only control our own actions in the face of setbacks.
When Seneca says that hope and fear are linked like a guard to their prisoner, I would submit that the chains that bind them are attachment. We can learn to walk with hope as a welcome companion through our days rather than chain ourselves to the hopes of a better tomorrow. To me, it’s like setting an intention at the start of your day: you set the intention but the day will play out as it will. You put your best plan and best foot forward but always remember that you can’t control the result. Hope for the best and let the chips fall where they may. Or, more cynically: hope for the best but expect the worst.
It does indeed take some audacity to allow yourself to hope at times. When all seems lost, when there seems like there is no clear path to the light, allowing yourself to hope for the better takes a certain kind of courage, a bravery to stand up to the current situation and say: “this won’t last forever.”
As Uncle Iroh said: “in the darkest of times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”