Vox Populi

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Baron Wormser: Against Hope

Some days it feels as though there should be a hope index to go along with the New York Stock Exchange Index. The Hope Index (a proper, specific noun and thus deserving capital letters) would vary according to how dire the news was on a given day, though a certain news base line would be steady: war, environmental degradation, and social chaos, to name three. The Index would vary according to dire, direr, and direst. Also the Index could tabulate how many politicians, pundits, op-ed writers, essayists, and religious figures used the word. The corporate harvesters of Internet data could chip in with many how times the word appeared in communications among people, how many variants of “You can always hope” or “Let’s hope so” appeared. Overall, as a song title might have it: “Whole Lotta Hope Goin’ On.” 

   Our hoping seems very understandable. Pondering the fate of the human race, the innumerable creatures, and the earth itself has literally a mind-boggling quality to it. A human life span is infinitesimal in the geological scheme of things, to say nothing of the universe and beyond. And then the human mind, for all its talents, is the measurement of nothing beyond its own proclivities. Our seemingly endless assertions all go into a void known colloquially as “time,” or as Shakespeare put it, “alms for oblivion.” Perhaps that is why our hoping fits us so well. Hope gives us a margin for our uneasy wonderment, the awe that sneaks up on us when we look at a sunset or dawn. Shouldn’t we be doing better when we consider what we have been handed? Hope, too, gives us a margin for our industriousness that keeps inventing new purposes for new machines, an industriousness that often seems to be only making everything worse. 

   So we hope, as in: Bestow upon us more of whatever magic ingredient we pine for and we will get it right. We will have a better world and better days. The vagueness of much hope is part of hope’s genius. As an ointment, it can applied to a great variety of wounds and discomforts. As magic, it lives quite gladly in the yearning of a few words. As a reference to some bestowing force, it acknowledges an Other that is beyond our vaunted human control. As an antidote to crushing adversity, hope rallies our downcast feelings. The odds may be long (“hope against hope”) but through hope we feel we have something like a chance. More than one person has lived a lifetime within that margin. 

   And yet, to quote Krishnamurti, “Hope is a lie.” Or to quote the proverb from Eastern Europe, “Hope was born stupid.” Krishnamurti’s approach is straightforward. Since hope is a form of wanting, it cannot register truth-in-the-world and is inherently flawed. Hope is not much more than emotional spume. The proverb records how many hopes have vanished into very thin air and how many people have had to live with those vanished hopes—or choose to not live. For hope only knows what it wants to know and only focuses on what it wants to focus on. One of hope’s dubious benefits resides in its ability to banish reality, even though reality has a brusque penchant for crashing the party. When Neville Chamberlain spoke of “Peace for our time,” he was indulging in hope, however much he thought he was grappling with reality. He went to good schools and came from the ruling class, an educated man. Probably he could not imagine himself telling a lie. Probably he could not imagine himself being stupid.  

   Hope, as Chamberlain’s example illustrates, never lacks for accomplices. In his case, desperation was whispering in his ear (“No, no, not another war”), though he would not have publicly acknowledged such a darkly importunate voice. He wanted to delude himself and, with hope’s winds in his too-trusting sails, he did so. Hope can be like that: seemingly able to turn night into day, a knack that I suspect resides in two other accomplices—conceit and complacency. Since hope is rooted in an off-hand, barely noticed belief in the potency and value of human wanting, a degree of conceit seems an ineluctable companion. Thinking through a scenario represents the strenuous task of seeking truth with open eyes, a truth that may be painful. Hitler was not another British gentleman. Thinking through a scenario represents the challenge of giving up predilections, habits, and peccadilloes. We can all hope—to choose an immediate instance that affects everyone—that climate change somehow abates and we can go on merrily doing all that we have been doing without any sacrifice or change of course whatsoever. Such a hope, however, seems far removed from truth.

   It’s not a big stretch to see how complacency fits in with conceit. We (the human race) trundle along in our various paths that revolve around our appetites and our rapt capacity for turning desires into needs. We are raised with whatever shibboleths are current and turn them into habits and faiths. Off we go! Hope fits in nicely since it blesses our endeavors with the aura of uplift. We insist that we have been good children who somehow become good adults. (W. H. Auden’s famous lines–“Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good”–seem apposite.) Most adolescents, which is to say people living between childhood and adulthood, would be quick to point out that such an insistence is a lie and that a price is paid to cross the Gulf of Uneasiness that defines adolescence, that price typically being more self-consciousness than a person knows what to do with. All this low drama makes hope a perennial candidate for assuaging whatever fright is around the corner. We sigh and go about our largely avid business according to whatever lights we have. That the lights may somehow go out—due not to a random asteroid (though that is a possibility) but to us—is not our concern. We look at history books and marvel at the silly clothes our ancestors wore and the silly acts they performed in the name of being human. Since we are alive now, we must be better than that. Or we don’t even marvel because our complacency makes for a very thick skin.

   “Perennial” has a comforting ring to it. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: / Man never is, but always to be blest,” wrote the wise Alexander Pope in the confidence of the couplet-adoring 18th century. “Eternal” is a cousin to “perennial” for both offer a helping hand to the essentially anxious human predicament of not knowing what is going to happen next. Yet in modern times hope, since it has been connected to the whirligig of progress, has been amplified many times over. Progress made hope actual. The daily sense in which hope is commonly used–”Hope so”–became something much larger, something involving all of humankind. “Hope the czar is overthrown and we live in a revolutionary world of freedom and generosity.” “Hope through electoral politics we can achieve ultimate social justice for everyone.” “Hope we can save the earth from our countless human depredations.” All of these hopes, of course, have been calls to action and thus much more than hope, but the sense that everything will continually get “better,” whatever “better” may mean also turns hope into a sort of lullaby, a belief that by hoping whatever it is we hope we can get there—wherever “there” may be. The very vagueness of social goals—the withering away of the state, for instance—helps in this way. Nothing human, as Pope noted, merely “is.” Purpose enlivens and betrays us at every turn. The powerful industrial dynamic that distinguishes modern times—all those factories turning out all those things, be they bombs or toasters—has lent hope an almost practical cast. So much has been actualized. Who would have thought it possible?

   Must hope block the searching for truth? The faith in constant economic growth, the adoration of moneyed percentages, tacitly underlies politics. Hope looks forward, but hope typically has on blinders since it focuses solely on its wishes. Hope soothes us and makes our small stature bearable. Hope provides a margin where there may not seem to be one. In the face of harsh truth, hope (to hearken to Krishnamurti) sparks a degree of unreality. For a nation such as the United States that is rooted in unreality, in a mythos of its own making that relentlessly exaggerates its virtues, the abandonment of truth has very severe consequences, as recent events graphically show. The spectacle of a president delightedly lying and millions of people delightedly endorsing his lies is chilling. The spectacle of climate degradation is similarly chilling, particularly when many insist there is nothing to pay attention to and that we can continue on our blithe, getting-more path. Barack Obama’s hope message, though a milestone of sorts in the Hope Index, may seem very wan in such lights. 

   Santayana once noted that humankind was still in its childhood. A child hopes because of powerlessness, the brute fact that adults control the world. What, then, are adults up to in their hoping? Being children? Before we cringe at that question, we might recall that native people around the world often have looked at human beings as children in terms of their dependency on Mother Earth. The issue there isn’t hope; it’s reverence and attentiveness that is reflected in the way people live, people who weren’t, to use D. H. Lawrence’s humbling phrase, “word bags.” Those ways were alert and simple by nature. The challenge humankind faces now is to face the truth of simplicity and let that occur in ways that aren’t hopelessly (intentional pun) disruptive. It’s a very tall order, a sort of “grow up or shut up” order. When one thinks of the brutal circus that politics often embodies, the posturing of men (mostly) who seek power, adulation, ideological advantage, nationalistic domination, and personal gain and are willing to do anything to slake their ambitions, to say nothing of the juggernaut of money-fueled materialism, to say nothing of the wide-spread alienation from the Earth, to say nothing of the belief that technology is a form of salvation, one realizes the extent of the challenge. We are in a time that dwarfs Chamberlain’s wretched pronouncement. He could take the Earth’s ways for granted. We can’t. 


Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser

Baron Wormser served as poet laureate of Maine from 2000-2005. His many books include the novel Some Months in 1968 (Woodhall Press, 2022).

Baron Wormser

19 comments on “Baron Wormser: Against Hope

  1. mainegardenfacts
    October 24, 2022

    Well said, Baron. Hope is more often opiate than spur. I’m reminded of a piece by Derrick Jensen in Orion many years ago titled Beyond Hope. It has a harder edge but I highly recommend it as follow up to this essay. I taught it for years. Link here:
    https://orionmagazine.org/article/beyond-hope/

    Like

  2. Betsy Sholl
    October 23, 2022

    Reverence and attentiveness rather than mindless hope–thank you for this.

    Like

  3. Wesley Staples
    October 23, 2022

    It’s no wonder that my cherished friends, Judy and Sandy, now late, were so enamored of Baron Wormser. This essay is timeless, timely, and brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mike Schneider
    October 23, 2022

    Thank you for this essay. Your title, “Against Hope,” capsulizes an important, if not urgent, topic, and lit my memory of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, high on my list of powerfully moving books. Nadezhda is Russian for hope — “how insidious and delusive,” she wrote, “is the one whose name I bear . . . .”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. gjhovey23
    October 23, 2022

    I tried to write a comment earlier and couldn’t do it because of password mess-ups. If I didn’t have hope that I could solve this problem, I couldn’t have sent this comment. While I share a great deal of what you write about the way things are now and the wisdom of indigenous people, I cannot give up on hope. In my experience, and in the experience of colleagues in many campaigns over the years, hope is what kept us going. Working together, because we hoped that our actions would make a difference, we kept going. I think hope is related to resilience and to vision. Where there is no vision, the people perish. I wish we could sit down and talk about this as it is a huge subject. Tell the people of Ukraine to give up hope? Not on your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      October 23, 2022

      Yes, I’ve always thought of hope as a good thing, so I found Baron Wormser’s perspective interesting. There’s been a tendency in recent years for progressive candidates to use the word “hope” to get elected. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both used it in their campaigns, for example. I worry that the word has become a cliche that substitutes for substantive change in the political sphere.

      >

      Liked by 1 person

      • gjhovey23
        October 23, 2022

        I agree that the word has become cliche. For me, that doesn’t require me to give up on the concept. I still believe in the importance of hope, of finding allies who share a vision of a better future and are prepared to work for it. This doesn’t guarantee success, of course. I’d like to hear Baron, who I have known as a wise teacher, tell us what it is that keeps him going if it is not hope.

        Liked by 1 person

        • bwormser2
          October 23, 2022

          What keeps me going is the remarkable experience of being on Earth and the goodness that comes from that–love, caring, compassion, joy, awe, to say nothing of food, flowers and dogs. That’s not to gainsay the terrible things human beings do each day to one another. I don’t hope about people nor do I feel hopeless. I just don’t think that way.

          Liked by 1 person

          • gjhovey23
            October 23, 2022

            Thank you. Beautifully said.

            Like

  6. geriatric pilgrim
    October 23, 2022

    Baron, I thought of Eliot’s “Wait without hope,” and also H.L. Menckin’s essay, “The Cult of Hope.” Still, for me, there’s a difference between hope and optimism. I have hope for humanity; I’m not optimistic for this country.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. skurdavt
    October 23, 2022

    Thank you for another of your remarkable and recurrent efforts to say everything that is of utmost importance for citizens to hear, to acknowledge as truthful, and to act upon now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      October 23, 2022

      Thank you. I completely agree. Baron’s essays and poems have a direct simplicity and yet they are profound and original. An amazing balance.

      Like

  8. Nolo Segundo
    October 23, 2022

    I agree with so much of this— we so called ‘modern people’ are so delusional in so many ways…

    Liked by 1 person

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