Beyond Hope

“Hope is the thing with feathers”

-Emily Dickinson
Try courage instead

This Thanksgiving, I was keenly aware of my gratitude for an absent member of our family. Had he lived, our son would have been four years old. I am truly thankful for his brief presence in our lives, which activated my paternal instincts, and gave me a deeper respect for my own forefathers. The three days I spent with him in the hospital, and the subsequent years I have spent coming to terms with his short life, taught me something important about how to live my own life. My wife put it succinctly one morning: “You don’t need hope if you have courage.”

We admire saints and martyrs (including the secular ones) not because they hoped for success in their own lives, but because they faced the circumstances of their lives with a sense of higher purpose, and great courage. And while they often had visions of a better future, they were prepared to act courageously whether or not they would ever see these visions realized in their lifetime. Likewise, our American ancestors, whom we honor by feasting at Thanksgiving, may have hoped for a better future for their children. But it was their daily application of courage that I admire most.

I was talking with a friend recently about how perilous it may have been for our current president to have run his election campaign on a message of hope. My countrymen now seem determined to ignore whatever progress he has made so far, and I believe this illustrates one of the dangers of hope. The problem is that hope is an expectation of something we desire in the future. If it is a personal desire, and it is not met, we feel disappointed, even disillusioned. And that seems to be the case with so many Americans right now–that their own individual hopes have not been met, and so they feel disillusioned with a president who could not live up to their expectations, no matter what else he has done.

Buddhist philosophy tells us that desire leads to attachment, and that attachment is the cause of human suffering. Hope is a form of desire. And so, instead of riding the constant swings of hope and disappointment, I choose instead to focus on the inherent value of courage. I can still be optimistic, even inspired. I can exercise my preferences in the present tense to influence the future. But I choose now to abide in the strength that comes from knowing that whatever my life brings to me, I will face it with courage. Because according to the most courageous woman I know, with courage, you don’t actually need hope. And so, I will take one more step along my journey with courage, by clicking “publish” on this post.