Hope can be defined as the feeling of wanting something to happen, or the chance that something good will happen. Norman Cousins said, “The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started.” Indeed, the capacity for hope is one of the most significant aspects of our lives, not because it provides a sense of destination, but because it is one of the most destructive of all emotions.
Hope is a negative feeling because it implies that anything beneficial that can happen to us is entirely outside of our control. Hope tells us that for anything good to come about, it must arise from external circumstances. “I hope I get that promotion.” “I hope I get picked for the team.” “I hope I win the lottery.”
Hope produces a state of mind in which we are powerless, not powerful. Hope is really fear in disguise, and it can paralyze us even more than fear. We give up our lives to fate and persuade ourselves that there is nothing that we can do directly to positively alter our circumstances. In the extreme, hope convinces us that peace and happiness are only possible through random external events, and that we are not in control of our own lives. Hope hinders motivation and personal responsibility.
Most of us confuse hope with possibility and foresight. It is possibility that gives us a sense of destination and the motivation to pursue a course of action. Foresight is our unique ability to imagine certain outcomes. Possibility is the most significant aspect of human consciousness. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in Possibility.” As long as we dwell in possibility, we can control our own lives by setting goals and taking the necessary actions to achieve those goals.
As human beings we have the unique capacity to engage in goal-setting behavior — an innate capability to create a future that we have first imagined in our minds. We can imagine future results and determine the actions that are necessary to achieve those results, thereby committing ourselves to improving our circumstances. Hope distracts us from our goals. Whereas goal-directed behavior results in positive actions aimed toward the achievement of some end, hopeful thinking depends on the benevolent actions of some outside force. Hope acts in contrast to goal-directed behavior because it places the likelihood of success on something or someone else, rather than ourselves.
Of course, there is an element of luck in every aspect of our lives. Life is not a chess game where we can look ten or twenty moves ahead and analyze the best move in our current position. Life is more like backgammon. We decide on the best course of action based on the probabilities of reaching our ultimate goal. One bad roll of the dice and our plans can come crashing down around us. A string of good rolls lands us on easy street.
The objective is not to make decisions based on the hope that certain rolls of the dice will happen – unless we happen to be in a casino playing craps. Rather, the objective should be to make decisions and embark on courses of actions that are based on the facts that are available to us at the present time, and the likelihood that our decisions and actions will result in favorable outcomes for us relative to our goals. Will we be able to achieve our goals in a straight, direct line? Probably not. The path toward any goal is likely to resemble a zig-zag pattern, like the course carved out by a running back as he takes advantage of various openings on his way toward the end zone. We need to recognize that any path is one of continual course correction and have the confidence to let things “play out” after making our decisions.
Wisdom literature teaches us to “let go” in this manner. The Bhagavad Gita instructs us to perform actions for their own sake, without worrying about the possible outcomes. The Tao Te Ching advises us to complete our work and then withdraw. The capacity for hope interrupts this process. After making an important decision, we are prone to spend a great deal of time and energy worrying about whether our decision was correct. That is, we hope our decision was correct. The time for worry is before the decision is made, not afterward. Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Hoping for a certain outcome is not the same as monitoring our progress and making necessary adjustments. Monitoring is active; hope is passive. Nothing worthwhile has been accomplished by sitting back and hoping for good things to happen.
By hoping that things turn out the way we want – that is, by hoping that the dice roll a certain way – we unsettle our minds and our thought patterns. Hope breeds anxiety. Hope leads us to question whether our decisions were correct in the first place. Hope convinces us that we are not in control of our own lives. Monitoring and feedback are important parts of the goal achievement process. Worry and anxiety are counterproductive.
Possibility promotes personal responsibility and motivates us to take the necessary actions to accomplish positive outcomes. If we dwell in possibility, we place the responsibility for accomplishments on ourselves. Hope negates personal responsibility and destroys initiative by placing the burden of achieving desired outcomes on someone or something else. If we surrender ourselves to hope, we abdicate personal responsibility for our lives. Living without hope empowers us to achieve whatever we can imagine.