Following the recent workshop we conducted at UMass Amherst, I was asked by a student if she could interview me about my views on ‘hope’, for a podcast she’s assembling for her final college project. The result was a conversation that I found valuable, because it obliged me to address what I really mean by ‘hope’. I’d mentioned in my introductory talk at UMass that I consider there is hope – indeed, I said that we live in a medium of hope, but now I was asked to define what I meant by the word.
There is a difficulty here, because ‘hope’ is a word that we usually use in connection with a specific outcome. ‘I hope it’s a fine day tomorrow’, or ‘I hope I pass my test’, or ‘I hope my children are safe’, etc. But there is a sense of the word that is not attached to any outcome, and this is difficult, and perhaps impossible – to convey. For me, hope – unattached to any expectation - is a feeling that can’t be defined or described in words, but as I spoke this into the student’s microphone, I wondered whether it was simply a cop-out. Then I reflected that we are all familiar with the impossibility of saying categorically what ‘love’ is. There has never been a definitive statement - in millennia of poetry and song - that has ‘nailed’ it, but most of us (and I’d like to say all) know what it feels like. If we can accept that love is an indefinable feeling, perhaps we can accept the same about ‘hope’.
Lacking a definition doesn’t mean that hope is not real. Some years ago, helped by long contemplation, I became convinced that ‘hope’ is real; that there is ‘something’ positive and available that is not dependent on our subjective moods or feelings. This is nothing anthropomorphic, or even religious, but simply an experience that I’ve found I can reconnect with, and that keeps me from the sort of despair which otherwise would be a logical response to the way the world is currently unfolding, environmentally, socially and politically.
It seems to me, looking at the way so many people are working towards a better future for the natural environment and for human society, that they too are touched by a feeling of hope, even if they don’t recognize it in the terms I have described. When I said that we live in a medium of hope, I had in mind the way a fish lives in water, perhaps not even realizing that this is what supports it, and allows it to thrive. If we can learn to be aware – even fleetingly - of hope in this sense, it can make the difference between giving up and carrying on, even if we can see that ‘hope’ for this or that specific outcome has no evidence to sustain it.