Is Hope an Obstacle or a Tool?

DSCN1130I’m traveling North to Maine by train.  There’s something about heading to new destinations that fills me with energy and excitement. The possibility of unknown sights and novel experiences sharpens my senses and everything takes on a brighter sheen.  On the tracks, Massachusetts fades behind and the great behemoth that is Maine lies ahead. There’s a sense of freedom, as if the usual rules of play are suspended. This is one of the draws of travel.  There’s a way in which we long to shed the constraints of the past and pluck from an inchoate dream a new reality or beginning. This is what hope is like: movement away from the strangle of a known quantity toward the promise of something new.


Sometimes it seems Buddhism is unequivocal in its renunciation of hope. It’s often portrayed as a strategy that is antithetical to true freedom. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron is a prime disciple of this view: “One of the most powerful teachings of the Buddhist tradition is that as long as you are wishing for things to change, they never will.” Hope gets a beating in Buddhism for many reasons. It pulls you out of the present moment, creates aversion towards what is here, and it often leads to unskillful action or inaction.

On some level, however, there appear to be no shortage of reasons why hope seems logical. It is not hard to point out many things in the present moment are problematic and cause suffering. What, if not hope, would help us garner the energy to burst through inertia and despair that can weigh so heavily upon us. In the act of hoping we imagine possibilities that may have never occurred to us if we only looked backwards or down. Exploring the subject in her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit quotes philosopher Alphonso Lingis at length:

“Hope is hope against the evidence. Hope arises in a break with the past. There is a kind of cut and the past is let go of.  There is a difference between simple expectation and hope. One could say ‘because I see this is the way things are going, this is the way things have developed, I expect this to happen’; expectation based on the pattern you see in the past…I think that hope is a kind of birth—it doesn’t come out of what went before, it comes out in spite of what went before. Abruptly there’s a break and there’s an upsurge of hope, something turned toward the future.”


Riding the Amtrak through New England’s backyards, wetlands and small town centers, I experience the thrill of turning towards an unwritten future, a future not bound by what has occurred. Yet in this space I notice there is also a sharper appreciation of the moment.

Examples of hope as an obstacle and a tool are easy to come by. We vote in a new candidate and our hopes that this will bring change keep us from taking more radical action in the moment. The hope for our beautiful newborn child leads us to end the painful legacies of abuse in our family and radically change how we parent. Hope can keep us content in situations that are less than adequate, unfulfilling or down right dangerous because we believe that circumstances will change if only we wait long enough. At other times hope ushers in unprecedented action and movement when despair and cynicism has us in its talons, convinced that nothing will change. How then do we use hope not as an opium that keeps us complacent, but as a beacon that inspires?

Part of the Buddhist issue with hope is how its future orientation can rob us of the ability to see the present clearly and to work with it. Caught up in fantasies of what could be or what may come, we can create an unbridgeable gulf between the future and now. This may provide us with solace and ease our burden in the moment, but ideals can blind us to progress. Idealistic expectations often leave us dismayed and disappointed when they are not perfectly met. Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano gives a more useful way to conceive of hope. “Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.”

Hope gives us a horizon to move towards and yet the horizon is not the goal. If we can use hope to inspire and hold our expectations loosely, we can retain the flexibility and openness that movement requires. Look no further than the monstrous consequences of zealous adherence to religious or economic dogma for examples of idealism gone awry. When our focus is on achieving a particular goal and we lose our responsiveness to the needs that arise in moment we behave unskillfully. Needs may arise that guide us in entirely new directions, ones we would not have chosen, but end up being far more appropriate. One insight of Buddhism is that change does not start from the future and move backwards, it starts in the moment, where we can act.

The first leg of my train ride ends up being an hour late. I miss my connecting train and I panic and get upset. The conductor is far from sympathetic and says this is common and was explained on the website. I can get upset and demand a refund or I can adapt. Eventually I find a connecting bus. This gets me to the coast just in time for the last ferry to a island close to the island I am headed to. From this nearby island I am able to pay a local fisherman a small fee to ferry me over to my final destination.

During this extended trip I meet a wrestler, a young biologist and woman who has summered on the island for over 39 years and is a fount of historical knowledge. I explore a small college town during the layover, grab some lunch and do some reading. I get ride a lobster skiff across a beautiful bay. If all had gone according to my plans I would have missed these encounters and adventures. If I had only focused on the reaching my destination all the mishaps would have seemed like obstacles and my reaction would have been frustration or anxiety.

By heeding Galeano’s advice, we can keep moving towards the horizon, understanding we will never arrive. Incorporating the Buddhist willingness to embrace and savor each moment as it is, it becomes possible to see detours as being just important as the destination. In this way hope does not become a burden or an excuse for inaction, but rather a way to preserve our momentum without betraying our lives in the moment.

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