I recently read a New York Times article by Simon Critchley, a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His piece entitled “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope” is a sophisticated critique and philosophical contextualization of President Barack Obama’s idea of the “audacity of hope”, arguing that, in the realm of politics, realism would serve us much better than hope. Critchley questions whether hope is just a “form of moral cowardice” and asserts that “hope has migrated into our national psyche to such an extent that it blinds us” to reality and creates inaction and complacency to face to world’s problems, notably wars which the United States continues to engage in. To support his theory, Critchley cites the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “Hope is the evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”
Critchley is not alone in his disappointment that President Obama, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has presided over the invasion of Afghanistan and the prolongation of war with Iraq. Nor, as evidenced by Nietzsche’s quote, is Critchley the first to insist that we abandon hope to rid ourselves and our society of inaction or suffering. The argument to abandon hope can be found in other philosophies. For instance, in Taoism things are neither good nor bad and everything changes, so hope has no role. In the Buddhist religion, hope is an attachment that can steer us toward suffering, a projection of our fears that leads us out of the moment and attaches us to an outcome in the future that may or may not occur.
Can hope lead to suffering? Yes, there are times when we hope for things to happen, and when they don’t, we suffer emotionally. There are other times we hope for things to work out on their own. We take no action or hope someone else will do the job, and nothing gets done. Yet, despite hope’s pitfalls, I believe hope is one of the most necessary ingredients to the continuation of the human race, and I see an increase in hope in our society as a positive step, a weapon against many societal ills from suicide to war.
Both in the realm of politics and our personal lives, we need to guard against philosophies or ideologies that would rob us of hope. Hope is neither a recipe for complacency, nor for disaster!
I work with people every day who are suffering with financial issues, family problems or challenging medical diagnoses. Sometimes it is only hope that gets them through the day — hope that there is a way out of the situation or that things will get better is exactly what gives them strength to carry on even if it is against all foreseeable odds. Hope doesn’t have to stop us from being realistic or accepting what is happening in the moment. Hope doesn’t need to lead us to complacency or stop us from taking action to deal with an issue such as going to the doctor or acting on what we think is right. Under many circumstances, hope can open the mind to all that is possible and sustain us in the uncertainty of life.
Not only do individuals dealing with everyday problems need hope. Humanitarians around the world employ “blind” hope to their work every day and every day they make things better. They see the worst in the developing countries in which they work, and often every sign they see points to more death, abuse and poverty. So, why do they continue on? I have asked several notable humanitarians this question–Sasha Chanoff from RefugePoint, who works with international refugees, Katie Ford who works to eradicate human trafficking, Maggie Doyne from BlinkNow.org, who works with orphaned Nepalese Children, Rachel Lloyd from Gems, who works to stop child sex trafficking, and Soledad O’ Brien, through the Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation, who helps young women overcome various obstacles to achieve their educational goals . Each of these humanitarians have one thing in common– they all have hope in the face of what sometimes seems impossible. Does this hope ever lead them to fail? Of course, they tell me, there are times their hopes don’t come to fruition, and sometimes lead to times of frustration and even suffering. Overwhelmingly, though, they all tell me that hope has led them to have a huge positive impact on individuals and communities that have been abandoned by society.
One of my favorite hope stories is about a young man named Kennedy Odede who created an organization called Shining Hope for Communities. Kennedy grew up in Kibera, Kenya, Africa’s largest slum. He lived on the streets from the time he was ten. He saw his family and community devastated by poverty from which there seemed to be no escape. Kennedy taught himself to read and one day, in his teens, received books about Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. from a visiting American. After reading the books, he decided he wanted to fight for social justice. Kennedy founded Shining Hope with the simple act of purchasing a soccer ball to start an informal soccer league. His goal? To bring his community together. The 20-cent price tag for the ball was daunting but, motivated by hope, Kennedy has ultimately managed to find world-wide support for his organization and opened the Kibera School for Girls, the community’s first tuition-free school for girls. He has provided Kibera with health care, clean water and toilets, as well as a computer lab and a well-stocked library, a community garden, adult education and legal services.
What would propel this young man with hardly enough food to eat, no home and no money to think he could accomplish so much? Kennedy witnessed so many people he grew up with killed by AIDS, prostitution, violence, and by the despair he says comes from knowing that no matter how much you may deserve it, you will never get a chance at a better future. Kennedy believes that the reason he was able to do what he did in a life filled with hopelessness was that he saw hope – and clung to it. Now Kennedy, along with his wife Jessica Posner, and his supporters are making another world possible. Kennedy says his dream is to expand Shining Hope across East Africa.
Maybe in a classroom or in a philosophical debate, Critchely and others can make distinctions between different kinds of hope and differentiate which type of hope leads to suffering or inaction and which makes us so-called “moral cowards.” But when you go out into the world beyond the classroom or the debate halls where people are really suffering, you will find their suffering is not a result of their hope, but as a direct result of the very real forces stacked against them.
Abandoning hope is no act of fortitude. It often takes more courage to have hope than to not. Being human can be challenging to say the least. Sometimes it is only hope that feeds our spirits and launches us to find strength and the power to carry on.
From where I stand, and from the perspective of people who labor every day to alleviate suffering, this is not a time in our national history to embrace Nietzsche. Instead, I prefer to stick with Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.”
Allison Carmen is an author, blogger, life coach and business consultant. Allison’s book, The Gift of Maybe, was recently purchased by Perigree, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and will be released November 4, 2014. Allison’s blog (www.allisoncarmen.com) focuses on self-help, spirituality and parenting.