How to Be a Hopeful Realist

How to Be a Hopeful Realist

Why We Think Hope is Unrealistic 

Ironically, we often mistake hope for hopelessness. Look no further than the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. Driving through the spooky stillness of the first lockdown, I came across a marquee boldly declaring, “Hope is not canceled!” All of the shows at this particular venue were canceled, of course, along with the livelihoods of the staff and performers for the foreseeable future. Hope, it would seem, is what you reach for when there’s nothing else left. 

In his enviably titled, Hope Without Optimism, Terry Eagleton writes, “Hope suggests a tremulous, half-fearful expectation, the mere ghost of a robust assurance. In modern times, it has had almost as bad a press as nostalgia, which is more or less its opposite. Hope is a slender reed, a castle in the air, agreeable company but a poor guide, fine sauce but scanty food.” In practice, most of us agree. Hope offers lovely sentiments for Hallmark cards and posters in the offices of guidance counselors, but it doesn’t rise to the challenge of real problems. When asked about the need for hope at a press conference in the midst of a COVID surge, one health official spoke for many of us when he said, “Hope is not a strategy.” 

If hope is synonymous with wishful thinking, it most certainly is not a strategy. Like a frightened child crouched under her covers, trying frantically to wish the monster away, the picture might be moving when it involves childish fantasies, but it loses all its charm when the monster is all too real and refrigerated trucks are piling up outside of overcrowded morgues. The question is: Is this an accurate description of hope? It is after all one of the three theological virtues, along with faith and love.

My experience lately is that there’s a conspicuous lack of hope among Christians in North America. This hopelessness comes in various guises. Many are simply afraid and greet all thoughts of the future with increasing trepidation. For some, it’s a wizened cynicism that’s content to let it all burn. The country may be in shambles, but at least we’re not surprised about it. Others think that desperate times call for desperate measures, and believe that cultural redress might only come about through drastic political solutions. It goes without saying that these despairing responses are not divided along partisan lines, but are characteristic of the national mood in general. Once again, all of us seem to agree that hope has nothing to do with realism. 

Further on in his book, Eagleton offers this incisive analysis: “If there is a passive aspect to hope, its opposite in this respect is not so much despair as pure self-determination.” Continuing in this same vein, he writes, “Hope, by contrast, recalls us to what rebuffs our dominion. To say ‘I hope to do so’ is to concede that there are limits to one’s power. Hope and humility are in this sense bedfellows.” There’s a scriptural echo to “I hope to do so” in James 4:13-15: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” It’s a passage I’ve thought about incessantly since 2020. 

“Pure self-determination” aptly summarizes the central ambition of the modern world. If Eagleton is right, the hopelessness that characterizes our cultural moment is largely due to the growing recognition that all of our technological mastery and scientific prowess cannot conquer basic human limitations. In this sense, COVID-19 made three timeless truths unavoidable—we are not in control; we are vulnerable; we are mortal. The fact that we continue to be scandalized by each of these truisms is highly revealing.   

Our hopelessness is thus predicated on an idolatrous view of human autonomy. Notice that the terminology we use in dire circumstances mirrors the assumption that we ought to be in total control. Why is it that when we want people to engage in some form of compromise regarding their convictions, we enjoin them to stop being “idealistic,” and instead to be “practical” and “realistic.” Do we really want them to get in touch with reality, or do we simply want them to take charge by any means necessary when the circumstances are trying? But what happens when human contingency becomes unavoidable? It’s one thing if our response to the cultural disintegration of our nation is sadness and remorse, quite another if we’re in despair. To phrase the matter starkly, contemporary despair is synonymous with thwarted self-determination. At the risk of offense, if you’re a Christian in the throes of despair, I would suggest it’s time to reflect on your ultimate source of hope. 

The Role of the Realistic Imagination  

Though William F. Lynch is best remembered for Christ and Apollo, his book, Images of Hope, features one of the more incisive treatments of the subject in recent years. Inspired by his work with mentally ill patients, Lynch seeks to demonstrate the practical necessity of hope in every day life. Surprisingly, he begins his discussion by pointing to the realistic imagination as a key ingredient. In essence, the realistic imagination consists in the ability to imagine things otherwise: “For one of the permanent meanings of imagination has been that it is the gift that envisions what cannot yet be seen, the gift that constantly proposes to itself that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem.” 

For those of us accustomed to thinking of the imagination as synonymous with fantasy or make-believe, Lynch’s description may sound a bit odd. But part of the problem with a word like imagination is that it’s romanticized. The same is true of hope. Ironically, in our efforts to valorize hope and imagination, we often end up elevating them into irrelevance—placing them on pedestals that tower so far above our daily lives they do little more than cast faint shadows.  

In truth, the realistic imagination is as gritty and hands-on as a doctor seeing a mended limb when confronted with a broken arm, or a plumber seeing a porcelain throne in the place of a leaking commode. The eager couple who purchase a “fixer-upper” wouldn’t embark on such a reckless venture unless they could see the space of their new home otherwise. On a similar but more profound note, the person in the throes of deep neurosis desperately needs the lifeline of the realistic imagination to shatter the illusion that her problems are permanent. Drawing from the wisdom of Harry Stack Sullivan, Lynch got into the habit of asking his patients, “Do you remember what was badly worrying you three weeks ago?” What makes the question so incisive is that it helps to free the person from the “troubling event, not by denying it but by enlarging the areas of reality.” The troubling event, no matter how severe, can be compassed. That’s a radical statement, one that depends on the reality of God.

Recall Eagleton’s insight that the opposite of hope is not hopelessness, but pure self-determination. If self-determination is indeed one of the central aspirations of modern men and women—a default setting—then the areas of reality are critically constricted; we are truly alone, the intractable problems of human life insurmountable. Scientists can’t save us. Politicians can’t save us. Supreme court justices can’t save us. Celebrities can’t save us. The free market can’t save us. Despair seems the only honest response. 

Why do so many Christians fall into this line of thinking? When confronted with the grim state of our nation and our world, why do we think that all hope lies with human efforts? Why do we assume reality is so narrow? Why do we assume we’re beyond the reach of our Lord?

Consider Psalm 139, rendered in the majestic language of the King James version: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee (7-12).” To internalize this colossal truth is to see the boundaries of reality fantastically expanded. If this is our world, we have reason to despair. If this is God’s world, however, we have nothing to fear. No matter how abject the circumstances, no ultimate harm will come to us. Things can and will be otherwise.

The Need for Bigger Wishes 

“Actually Christianity is or should be a complete validation and sanctification of the strength of our wishes.” These bold words from Lynch are liable to strike us as careless at best, downright irresponsible at worst. Aren’t wayward wishes one of the central problems in our lives? At the very least, shouldn’t we work overtime to tame our desires? Not only do I want to argue for the validity of Lynch’s assertion. I want to maintain that the key to robust and realistic hope lies not in the diminishment of our wishes, but in their enlargement. 

Along with the realistic imagination, wishing is integral to hope. A person’s life is in fundamental jeopardy when wishing has ceased. Though we’re often tempted to immediately associate wishing with lust and hedonistic pursuits—another unfortunate symptom of a cultural moment that reduces reality to bare human ambition—it’s instructive to begin with its basic place in human life. A child wishes (sometimes rather noisily) for love, care, nourishment, and rest. As a person grows in maturity, however, those primal wishes are deepened and grow more complex and refined. The wish for love leads into the complicated web of human relationships. The wish for care, nourishment, and rest leads to the pursuit of work and vocation. All of these wishes inevitably point up the need for growth in a human life, whether it’s in the realm of our relationships, our work, or our health. In every case, the wish will necessitate the realistic imagination’s capability of seeing things otherwise. 

In its healthy expressions, desire is the impetus for change and transformation. It’s the force that helps us to drag our weary limbs to the gym every morning, or to have a loving confrontation in the hopes of restoring a relationship. Notice that in both of these cases the wish must outstrip the lower desire of comfort and ease. It’s easier to hit the snooze button and roll back over. It’s easier to sweep tensions under the rug and allow faltering relationships to die a slow death. Both examples present us with a need for bigger, rather than smaller wishes. We wouldn’t tell the person pursuing a healthier lifestyle to face reality by quitting the gym because of its threat to superficial comfort levels. Nor would we counsel someone seeking to mend a broken friendship that the difficulty entailed by such an undertaking is just too great. Poor health and estrangement are not more realistic options. As C.S. Lewis observed so well, it’s not that our Lord finds our desires excessive, but rather that he finds them too meager. “We are far too easily pleased.”

One of the great tragedies that befalls so many Christians is that they misplace their hopes in the kingdom of this world and then become afraid to wish for more. In their disappointment and dismay, they settle for the small comforts of money, power, fame, or a Hallmark Christmas movie and a glass of wine. In each of these cases, the ceiling of hope has been drastically lowered. This is not a description of realism, but one of chronic spiritual immaturity. If we want to be both hopeful and realistic, we must allow Christ to transform our wishes—to make them infinitely larger and more capacious, so that we can eagerly await His return to wipe away every tear and to make all things new. 


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