The Difficulty of Facing Reality: When Hope is the Problem and Not the Solution

We are in the season of hope, but in the midst of despair.

“Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!”

The holidays tend to make one almost embarrassed to be hopeless; and hopelessness is described as something to be avoided in any season.

But sometimes, having hope is a problem — the problem — and giving up hope, facing reality, leads to possibilities.

All of us have had the experience of hoping for a positive outcome or event that wasn’t realized. We hoped to win the game, the job, or the romantic partner only to come up short. “Wait until next year” is the rallying cry of Cubs fans and human beings everywhere in the face of disappointment.

As the saying goes, “hope springs eternal.”

But sometimes hope is destructive. If you are in a terrible job with a sadistic boss, hoping for him to change is likely to keep you paralyzed, rather than triggering action to find a new place of employment or a new career.

If you are married to an alcoholic, abusive spouse, believing his apologies and promises to do better will keep you in the center of his bulls-eye, a target within easy reach.

Has your parent spent your whole life ignoring what you do well and trashing you over what you do not? Trying to win his praise might be a waste of your time, as hopeless as booking a trip to Mars for your next vacation.

In a rocky relationship? Some people hold on to the fantasy that if they can find just the right words and behave in just the right way, they will succeed in pleasing their spouse into being more loving. Others think having a child will make the marriage better, and live in that hope.

And then there are those who have been rejected by a lover, but continue to carry the torch of love into the dark night of the soul long after the loved-one has moved on.

I cannot say that hope is futile in each and every example I’ve given.

But it is often something of a fool’s paradise; nothing more than a castle in the air.

What I’m talking about here is a passive, inactive, timid hope that waits too long by the phone for the suitor to call. Not an active but reasonable hope that searches and schemes; defiantly claws its way forward and claims what it wants.

Beyond a certain point, passive hope anesthetizes you when you need the pain to motivate action; and need it to force yourself into the risks required to get what you want. As such, hope in these situations serves as an excuse for inaction.

All the while, life passes you by.

Thus, hope can keep you in a dead-end spot — the pipe-dream of an imagined future, while enduring a terrible present. I wouldn’t say that an imagined future would be a bad place to be if there were no ways to change the present. But, if you are ignoring things you can do to make your life better, than a servile hope is little more than a fairy tale.

Are you hostage to hope or perhaps, do you hope for the wrong things?

Such as?

A short list:

  • A life without problems.
  • Winning the lottery.
  • A new luxury car or great wealth.

Why not hope for these and similar things? Because there are no lives without some problems, lottery winners often report a less wonderful life than they expected; and treasurable objects beyond the basic necessities don’t seem to generate much lasting satisfaction. They are like the rapidly dissipating “new car smell” that most find so attractive and so temporary.

The overriding point here is that hope not only battles with despair, but also with acceptance of reality — acceptance of the terms life allows, followed by a commitment to change what it is in your power to control, instead of simply “hoping for the best.”

Such acceptance does not come easily. Admitting defeat is almost always difficult and painful. Grieving is thought by some to be unmanly and by others unnecessary or a hindrance to progress. But it has a cleansing function, one that allows most wounds to heal.

How do you know whether you are holding on to too much hope? One way is to look at how you deal with defeat and whether you can bounce back and embrace change. If too many situations find you stuck, waiting and wishing for something outside of yourself to intervene — a kind of deus ex machina — then you are vulnerable to the immobilizing influence that hope can have. If you’ve been at that dead-end job for years or in an equally dead relationship for an equally long time, it might be worth considering what you are waiting for and why you have not acted.

Do you fear that change could bring something worse?

Sometimes it can, but not all gambles are foolhardy.

Do you live in a future your friends think to be unimaginable while the present slips away?

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, we are told that the entrance to hell is inscribed with these words:


Ironically, it is just that directive that might be the way to a new and better life.

Heaven can wait.

Stop hoping for its quick arrival unless you have explored everything else that is possible.

Try — try hard — to create a heaven on earth.

In that possibility there just might be something worth hoping for.

The sculpture at the top is called Allegory of Hope, a 1776 work housed in the Catholic parish church St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf am Lech in Bavaria, Germany, photograph by GFreihalter. The second image is Job’s Despair by William Blake, from 1805. Finally, a 19th century painting by Taiso Yoshitoshi after the poem One Hundred Aspects of the Moon by Lady Ariko-no-Naishi. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.