Seems like folks are feeling cautiously optimistic these days, what with the DJIA peeking above 10,000 for a few moments this last week and Google, one of the barometers of the New Economy, back up in the stratospheric 500’s. During the far-darker days of almost a year ago a lot of us Americans voted for Hope, a moment immortalized in poster form by Shepard Fairey, and in some ways its name a reminder of the Book The Audacity of Hope that our now-president had penned. And as much as our young president is hoping to lead us out of recession while we are at the same time hoping that he and the Congress aren’t just delivering more budget-busting politics as usual, there is a different Hope that will lead us there, the Other Hope, the one that has been with us forever and upon which our great society has been built: Our Hope.
Hope is one of those words that we don’t really stop to think about – it is so essential and integral to our lives, yet we don’t recognize it for what it is: the single greatest defining attribute of our humanity. Big claim, yes. And I can back that up.
The verb “hope” means to “wish or feel that something desired may happen.” So hope is about the future.
But what do we know about the future? Not much. We may all be dead tomorrow. Things may be worse, they may be better, but we really don’t know. That’s sort of how the future works.
So we hope. We wish and even feel that something desired may happen. And we are largely alone in the Animal Kingdom in this respect. Our ability to imagine a future that is both different from the present and that incorporates our memories of the past both good and bad, is unique to our species. Sure, others in our branch of the genetic tree have some of these skills. But we didn’t ascend this evolutionary ladder on good looks alone. No, we hoped our way here.
We aspire. Especially in the West, but pretty much everywhere in the world, our dialog is permeated with references to what could be (the possibilities), what can be (our hopes), and how the present or past does or doesn’t conform to what we had hoped for (our disappointment or joy). It seems to be pretty much accepted fact at this point that few of us are capable of observing the present, past or future without referring to our hope of what they could-of been or could be.
At the core of this is our amazing ability to understand that many tomorrows exist and contemplate what could be like. We use this ability to contemplate our future to help us plan, to prepare, to scheme, and yes, to hope. We will work hard now and today and for many days that follow, all in the hope that some day far-distant from today will turn out in a way that we desire. All that, in the face of the fact that the hoped-for day may never happen; by the time that tomorrow comes, we may have died, or failed, or life and chance just combined in some way and our dear hoped-for was never to be. We fail more often than we succeed in this endeavor. We know this, and yet we persist. That’s some serious hoping.
And look where it has gotten us – we have dreamed up some pretty wonderful things. Our standard of living is very high. Poverty and malnutrition are lower during this era than in any other time in recorded history. We have freedoms and opportunities that liberate us from a rest-of-the-animals-like existence into something close to gods. We can “change the course of history” – and realize that we are doing it at the same time. Amazing.
Hope has a dark side as well – that same striving, planning and hoping in the face of uncertainty about the future has another face: risk-taking. Not necessarily bad, but as we have seen recently, excessive risk-taking can be bad, and when combined with greed and some highly-optimistic hoping (try saying: “Home prices will never go down” three times) Hope seems to be culpable in getting us into the recession in the first place. At some point on the “Hope continuum”, this risk-taking behavior becomes gambling, an addiction that can destroy your life and your future, and yes, even your hope.
Buddhists will claim that a supreme enlightenment occurs when one has abandoned all sense of hope – of needing the future to be something in particular. But for the rest of us, the complete loss of hope is pretty much the end of the game, as if our very life-force has been drained out of us. Many, actually lacking hope, will in fact make that life-end a reality. We fight wars to liberate people who have lost hope, even when they are us. That’s how important hope is to us.
Let’s get back to the good news on hope. We seem to have an endless supply. We are born with it and on average have enough for ourselves and often for all of those around us throughout our entire lifetime. We can give it to each other freely. We can share hope and discover newfound hope, and even better, hoping itself is free. We even hope just for the fun of it…what if I won the Lottery? One need only look back a couple of hundred years to understand the hope that filled hearts and minds when our Declaration of Independence was first shared. Look what happened.
Even in our darkest hours, hope is what rallies us. Here is one of the most hopeful proclamations ever made:
“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In these powerful ten words the case is succinctly made that the fear of a far less desirable future is, in fact, the greatest barrier to Hope. Hope is the antidote to fear, our elixir, the irresistible force that will actually beget a more desirable future. If you have never read the complete text from president Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech I encourage you to do so – a short read, but stunning in terms of its use of hope and vision.
Our ability to hope drives our economy. Like it or not, that’s the way Capitalism works. We work a bit harder in the hope that we will be better off or financially safer. We buy a new product in the hope that it will be better for us. We invest and take risks in the hope that we will gain from them. We invent things in the hope that we will become famous, rich or both. Productivity, Consumption, Investment and Innovation. These offspring of our ceaseless hoping have fueled our current level of prosperity and freedom.
And in the end, the hope for our economy lies not in our President, nor anything that the Congress nor The Fed can do, but rather, it lies in our ability to reclaim hope. One could argue that the best thing that those in Washington can do right now is to make sure that we can all feel hope, more so with each passing day. That investors can feel hopeful about investing, business owners feel hopeful in hiring, consumers feel hopeful in saving and buying, and everyone feels that together, the strength of our hope makes tomorrow a welcome day.
As to President “Audacious Hope” Obama, let us all pause for a moment and recognize the Nobel Committee’s award of the Nobel Peace (aka Hope) Prize to our President for what it is – collective hope, albeit unrealized as of yet. And in doing so we recognize him as symbolizing our need for a brighter future. The world has again noted that the USA is a source of Hope for much of the world. Nice.
And in that way, let’s not think of Hope as being Audacious. Nor as something that belongs to Nobel Peace Prize Winner Obama. Let’s celebrate it as Ubiquitous. It belongs to all of us. We’re hopelessly infected with it and there is no vaccine. It may drive us to do somewhat silly or even downright stupid things — even Shepard Fairey let Hope get in the way of better judgment — but at the end of the day, it always seems to be our hope, no, I mean Our Hope, that saves us.
Throughout human history and still true today, the only thing that we need ever to hope for is Hope itself. Hope will lead us out of recession this time, as it has in the past. Just watch.
Did I mention that Hope is infectious? Pass it on.
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt