The Folly of Hope

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There is nothing more poisonous in a person’s life than hope. Many religions, spiritual traditions, and even common wisdom seem to think that hope is a good thing – but it isn’t, and quite the opposite.

It doesn’t require much thought to realize that hope is just the other side of fear. Examples are incredibly numerous, simply because hope and fear play such a big part in our lives. A person may hope to win the lottery because of fear of financial hardship, and they might expect that friends approve of a new hairstyle and fear the opposite, or there may be hope that a cancer can be cured because of fear of death. You might already have noticed that hope is almost exclusively driven by the need to improve our survival prospects, and the other side of the coin is that we fear diminished survival prospects.

To be driven by hope and fear is to put oneself at the mercy of fortune. When bad things happen, we will automatically hope for some favorable resolution and sublimate the fear associated with this adverse event. Our mind is biased toward the reinforcement of hope and the denial of things and events that cause fear. Hope and fear are always driven by imagination. We play a cruel game with ourselves where we reluctantly contemplate the things that bring about fear while wholeheartedly embracing the things that bring about hope.

Our inclination towards hope has created an opportunity for a massive “hope industry.” This takes the form of religions and spiritual traditions that offer some form of salvation, and more recently the self-help industry where hope is sold by the truckload. The appetite for hope is inexhaustible, and so are the opportunities for the hope industries that attempt to satisfy it. One of the more unpleasant products to come out of the hope industry is optimism. A definition of optimism might be “setting oneself up for disappointment,” and such might be the disappointment on realizing the world does not care about your optimistic expectations that, as Emil Cioran pointed out, most suicides are failed optimists.

Optimists live on hope and naive expectations. To achieve this, they have to be in denial about the world’s reality, until of course, it comes and hits them in the face. The self-help industry is perhaps the cruelest manifestation of the insanity of hope. People will happily pay thousands of dollars to be told that they have to visualize what they want, believe in it, and then go for it. The net result is that these same people will set themselves impossible targets, pursue senseless ambitions, and become highly anxious.

The alternative to indulging in this hope and fear death embrace is to form an intelligent understanding of life, decide what would really satisfy, and do one’s best to realize these things while being realistic about the whole thing. What does being realistic mean? It means accepting and understanding lots of things we would rather not think about. For example, the probability that your new business will go broke within the first year is about 90% – so don’t go in there with all guns blazing driven by unrealistic expectations. Several books have recently been published showing that pessimists tend to be more successful because they plan for things going wrong. But there are much more profound things to consider. It’s a rare person that can stare their mortality in the face without recourse to some happy ever after story. The hard realities of life are often painful to face without creating false hopes that things might be different. The net result, however, is that we live life in a more skillful and pleasing manner. We do not suffer repeated disappointments when our hopes do not materialize. If an opportunity does present itself, we will deal with it instead of being consumed by futile hopes.

As is often the case in life the easy route usually delivers pain and anguish. Hope is the easy route because we are inherently programmed to want the most life-affirming things. But let’s not be a slave to these ruthless instincts; let’s use some intelligence and put hope where it belongs – on the bonfire of our vanities.

By MB

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