Is there danger in hoping too much?

According to Hesiod’s version of an ancient Greek legend, because Pandora has opened a jar stuffed full of evil by the Olympian gods, “countless plagues, wander amongst men … earth is full of evils … Diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently.” Curiously that jar was closed before hope was also allowed to escape.

Is the legend an expression of how bleak the human condition is — hopeless? If we could somehow reopen the jar, at least we would have some hope. Or is the idea instead that hope is also an evil like disease and accessing it will bring us even further torment? The philosopher Nietzsche took the latter interpretation, a view that seems curiously close to a kind of Stoicism. Better to focus on the here and now, that which we might control than to project into the future, which is far beyond our control.

It does seem that there can be a danger in hoping. For example, we might fixate on alternatives to conventional medicine and in doing so forego the more reliable path to a cure, to a longer life or to palliative relief. When we do that, it seems as if hope is not our friend. In those instances, hope becomes a servant of disease.

Even the greatest philosopher of hope, Ernst Bloch, claimed that “there is no hope without anxiety.” As a Stoic might claim, when we project ourselves into the future, we open ourselves up to anxiety just as much as to hope. If we are concerned to prevent anxiety, maybe it would be better to redirect our attention to the present, staving off both anxiety and hope. Nietzsche’s counsel is not one of despair. On the contrary, he believes that we can fully affirm the present only by foregoing hope.

Could anyone ever really do that? Could a patient so fully live in the present as to have neither anxiety nor hope? Bloch, at least, was doubtful. He asserted that looking forward is fundamental to the kind of minds we have. Like a lighthouse, we are constantly seeking to illuminate our future, indeed only because of that is progress is possible.

Try to imagine a world without hope. All criticism of the present would be left without a strategy, and it could easily fall victim to cynicism. Imagine if the abolitionists had had no hope. Martin Luther King, Jr was fond of quoting the abolitionist, Rev. Theodore Parker who, during the height of the transatlantic slave trade, dared to say: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.” Could Martin Luther King Jr. have been the strategic leader of the Civil Rights Movement without hope?

At two different points, while I was in the hospital, hope kept me eating. The production of saliva in my mouth and the mucus throughout my digestive track stopped as a side-effect of the chemotherapy that I had for a stem cell transplant. My mouth was as dry as the Mojave Desert. Eating became a chore. When I took a bite the roll given to me at breakfast, I felt like I was sucking on sand. I was miserable and had nothing but aversion to food. The only thing keeping me going was the hope of getting stronger. Insufficient intake of calories would make me weak, delaying my recovery. So, I ate.

Later, I contracted a gastrointestinal infection and was plagued by severe diarrhea. I was losing weight. My appetite was also on the wane because the chemotherapy had inflicted heavy damage on my taste buds. Most foods did not taste good (many still don’t), and some were positively revolting. The nurses would occasionally warn that if I were to lose much more weight, I would have to be put on nutritional IV at night. I had to eat much more at each meal than felt comfortable. It was unpleasant both because it was so much food and because none of it tasted very good. Even today when I imagine the possibility of having to return to the hospital, what I find most repellent is the food. But at the time the hope of renewed strength kept me eating.

Another thing that the political struggles I cite demonstrate is that we don’t typically hope alone. A community of hope supports every person hoping. The leaders are buoyed by the inspiring sacrifices of the members, and the members are carried along by the fierce commitment and rhetorical elegance of the leaders. And my efforts of personal hope were supported by the love of family and friends, many of whom offered inspiring comments to this blog.

Hope is a virtue for tough times. It can sustain us in our efforts to transform our circumstances. And from illness in our bodies to the injustices in our institutions, there is no shortage of reasons for hope. But in motivating us to change our condition, hope can also change us. Hope not only helps us to achieve our ends. Hope can transform us by increasing our capacity to act. In so doing hope gives expression to our own dignity.

I am not claiming that I left the hospital a more dignified person. The kind of dignity I am talking about is not measured on a scale like weight or wealth. It is possessed equally by everyone. And although hope allowed me to express a certain determination to be healthy again, it was my own survival at stake, not the protection of the dignity of others. I’m no hero. Hope in the hospital is different in that way from hope in streets. Nonetheless, in both cases, it gives expression to something that we admire in people. And our lives would be far poorer if we were to have to live without it.

Darrel Moellendorf blogs at On Being (a) Patient: Philosophical Confessions of a Stem Cell Transplant Recipient.

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