The Meaning of Hope by Ellyn Sanna

The Advent season is a time of hope—but many of us are feeling as though our hopes have been trampled into the mud. It’s hard to hope for anything now. The future looks dark, terrifying. To continue to hope seems like whistling in the dark. It almost seems safer, less risky, to abandon all hope, batten the hatches, and prepare for the worst.

But we’ve lost sight of the original meaning of “hope.” In Old English, hopa meant “confidence in the future.” The Greek word that our English versions of the Bible translate as “hope” meant something similar—“confident expectation”—and included an extra shade of meaning—“welcome.” It’s the sense of joyful anticipation we have when preparing for a longed-for guest. 

As the centuries passed, however, our understanding of hope shifted. Today, an online thesaurus gives these words as synonyms for hope: desire, wish, daydream, pipedream, aspiration. This is a far flimsier kind of hope. It’s the sort of hope that circumstances can tear to shreds. We’ve lost sight of hope as something active, muscular even—something practical and down-to-earth, something that gets busy while it waits.

Hope always looks forward. It doesn’t waste time looking over its shoulder at the past, and it doesn’t worry about what could have been. Its entire purpose is to keep us working for something that still lies ahead—because in the real world, there are no happily-ever-after endings. Even the happiest events, like weddings and births, are inevitably followed by periods of anguish and disappointment. They require a confidence in the future even in our darkest moments—and the willingness to keep working hard in order to make progress.

Hope isn’t the same thing as optimism. It’s not a cheery outlook that’s immune to dark days, and it’s not even a glass-is-half-full mentality. Hope sees the empty half of the glass, and it knows that there’s darkness all around—but it believes that there are possibilities, even in the darkness. There is action to take that will lead to something better. Hope has confidence in the future, and it does whatever it can now to make that future possible.

Some of these thoughts have been triggered by a book I’m reading called Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit (which I recommend). She says:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable."

After the election, President Obama reminded us that history doesn’t move in a straight line. “We zig and we zag,” he said. We take a step forward, we take a step backward. Sometimes we rush forward, and we feel inspired by the wave of transformation—and other times, we seem to lose all the ground we gained. Sometimes we do both at the same time.

Along the same lines, Solnit writes of our current world: “This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.” Hope doesn’t deny these realities. It gets busy and works with whatever's there.

I’m also challenged by Solnit’s reminder that “even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.” She talks about the long chain of events that led to the Arab Spring, some of them visible, some of them not so much. She traces back a thread that begins with comic books about Martin Luther King Jr and civil disobedience being translated into Arabic and distributed widely in Egypt . . . and continues back into the past, through Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, back to Gandhi . . . who was inspired by Tolstoy and the radical acts of noncooperation and sabotage of British suffragettes fighting for their rights. “The threads of ideas weave around the world,” Solnit says, “and through the decades and centuries.”

We need to recognize the important victories that have been won in the past few years—and then accept that these are only milestones. The fact there is still so much work to be done doesn’t negate the victories. When women got the right to vote, it was an important milestone—but it didn’t mean that misogyny had been laid to rest forever. When slavery ended in the United States, it was an enormous victory of truth and justice—but racism continued to raise its ugly head. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t end racism either—but it moved us significantly forward. More recently, marriage equality didn’t put an end to homophobia—but it was another victory. And today we are celebrating the Dakota pipeline protestors’ victory—but we know that the work there is not done either. As Solnit says, “A victory doesn’t mean that everything is now going to be nice forever and we can therefore all go lounge around until the end of time.”

That is the Christmas story as well. The birth of Jesus changed our reality—but it did not mean that everything became hunky-dory forever after. We know all too well that wasn’t the case. It was a victory, but it was a beginning, not an ending. After the Incarnation, Christ’s true followers down through the centuries have had to work hard, to give of themselves, to fight fiercely upstream against the tide of hatred and injustice (some of which was done in the name of Christ).

"Hope," says Solnit, "is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

So in this Advent season, we need hope. We need hope to keep our faces turned toward the future, believing that our words and actions matter, that we can make a difference. We need to have confidence that we too can weave threads into the future, threads that may reach places we never dreamed, that may still be spinning longer and stronger even after we are gone. We need to have the courage even now to welcome the future with all its potential and possibilities—and be willing to work hard to get there.

In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston wrote, “In a time of destruction, create something.” That’s the Christmas story: God creating love in the midst of hatred and violence. It's also the message of the Winter Solstice: the birth of light at the darkest moment of the year. That's hope.

So let's not give up hope. Let's get busy. Let's create something wonderful right now, right here.

Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich.