On Hopelessness

William Lynch begins his second chapter entitled "On Hopelessness" with a quote from Chesterton: I don't care where the water goes if it doesn't get into the wine. Hopelessness is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it can sometimes even be creative. Yet when hopelessness invades the pure wine of hope, well, the diluted result is less than appetizing.

What are the marks of being "hopeless"? For Lynch, it is a sense of the impossible, a feeling of too-muchness, a loss of goal and a feeling of futility. The hopeless individual believes that he or she is beyond help, isolated, and alone. One way of putting this would be to say, "there is no use" in doing anything at all. Why try? Why make a wish? There's no point at all. Hopelessness is paralyzing, it freezes the hopeless in place.

Without question, there are many areas of hopelessness in our lives. Not everyone can be trusted. Not ever investment brings a return. Not every choice in life is assured of success.

Just today, a wonderful young man and former student wrote to me about wanting to run for office within the school. He had a sense of who was running for which office and had calculated his odds of success. This bright, talented, young man demonstrates a fixation of hopelessness: he is paralyzed, afraid to take a risk, and only wants to run if it's a "sure thing" or a "safe shot." Rather that go big, he'd rather wait in the wings. Some may applaud this as strategy, but I see this as symptomatic of something endemic in our culture: an unwillingness to risk, to take a chance, to hope.

When I look at my niece and nephew, I'm struck with how powerful hope really is. As pedestrian as it may be, when my nephew 'hopes' for an action figure in his happy meal, he places his utmost confidence in "Bob" (my father) to make sure this comes to pass. When Emma needs a beautiful princess gown, she turns to none other than "Nan" to make it so. Children know, primordially, how to trust and to hope. It is years of experience that trains them not to expect too much, not to hope for too much, to settle for reality.

As I write, I can't help but think: maybe some of our youth today need a good dose of hopelessness. Instead of mom and dad doing the homework assignment for them, or calling them in sick, or defending them, perhaps our youth need to face up to limit situations where their failure to prepare leads them to experience the sting of defeat. It might not be a bad thing for a kid to feel the pinch from time to time, to experience the pain and hopelessness of getting cut from a team without parents threatening to sue. It pains me to say it, but at some point Emma and Quinn (my niece and nephew) need to learn that we don't always get what we want and that, sometimes, to get what we desire we have to sacrifice for it.

We are, all of us, creatures of hope and hopelessness. I hope to be a good priest, a servant to God's people. I hope to be a good scholar, one who thinks well and writes clearly. Yet I hold little hope that I'll ever have perfect abs or a full head of hair: even the blessed life I live is bereft of some pleasures, is etched with some hopelessness. I'll never have children, or an empire, or tremendous status in the world. These are constitutive of a hopelessness, a sense of my own finitude and limitations, which help to define who I am.

Lynch wisely underscores that our lives are marked by the 'both-and' of hope and hopelessness. It may repay many of us to reflect on both for a few moments, to consider where our hope reaches and where hope has been foreclosed. Part of leading a healthy, holy, life is to gain a sense of where we encounter this hopelessness and, rather than allowing it to govern our lives, to situate it against the horizon of hope that gives us meaning. I may never have flowing locks, but I can be a good priest to the people of God. It is in this that I, personally, place my hope. I'm defined more on what I aspire to, what I hope for, than by that which I cannot ever have. 
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