by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
Northrop Frye, one of my former professors at Victoria College, University of Toronto, “the great teacher” and renowned literary critic, once said about hope: “Hope is to my mind a virtue that is closely related to the literary, because all hope is based on fiction; it has no facts to go on but it’s where the creative impulse takes over.” Frye, who had a genius for systematically decoding the correlation between scripture and literature in such books as The Great Code, has made a original connection with this statement between what is usually viewed only as a cardinal spiritual virtue and the work of the writer.
Hope is based on fiction because what is hoped for in the present remains unrealised. In that sense, hope is something not yet true to life but lives vicariously. Yet hope, more than any other virtue, except love, affirms life and feeds the will to live. Who of us can live happily without it? Hope is expansive. It has a way of enlarging the universe of possibilities and of placing friendly humans on our path to brighten the darker moments of solitude. We willingly open our doors to the hopeful person, to that one who anticipates a better tomorrow. Hopeful people will find direction in a society that is haunted by a sense of meaningless, alienation and despair, for hopeful people never walk alone. They always have company.
Yet before someone makes me out to be a starry eyed Pollyanna, I fully expect that the days ahead will bring in their wake a series of setbacks, reversals and catastrophes for the world. But hope has learned to decipher a meaningful design in even these events, a design that affords us the learning experience of breaking the vicious circle of mindlessly repeating the darker patterns in our individual or collective past.
If we are fortunate enough to be able to count blessings in the legacy of the years gone by, the past will inspire confidence to face the future. Life giving hope belongs especially to the future. It enables our spirits to soar on the wings of unfolding destiny. A powerful alchemical mix of both desire and expectation, hope needs to be reinforced by “great expectations” to make good on its promises. Lukewarm hopes are more likely to go unfulfilled. The days ahead, because they contains as yet no memories, hold the potential for brighter ones. The most effective remedy for an unhappy past is to create happier memories in the present.
But the stolid and sometimes grim realities of life can cloud over the eager face of hope, can sorely blight its ever youthful springtime of possibilities. An Italian proverb, little known in English, expresses the gloomier outlook this way: “The man who lives only by hope will die with despair.” This dark little crystal of realism, while it seems to have been mined deep in the underground, only seems to express a sense of defeat or futility. Instead, its brutally frank realism gives pause for thought and invites, I think, both action and discipline.
Simply put, the message of this seemingly negative Italian proverb seems to be that if we do not take serious steps to put our high hopes into action, then we risk being treated to disappointment and failure. While hope is large of heart, her generosity is fragile and can be easily abused. Like the air we breathe, hope can be spoiled. It can even drown in despair, a sinking ship that may go under through inaction.
Hope is, or at least should be, an agent which sets goals, a dynamic that causes us, in humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s turn of phrase, “to actualise our latent potentialities” or in Tennyson’s other one “to seek a newer world.”Most of us have all too often observed that when all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.
By contrast, it is the fine garment of deeds, not words, that makes the man and the woman more fully human, and just as importantly, credible. Hope may nourish well wishes, good intentions and noble thoughts, but to make us real believers, something beyond the intangible is required. Actual performance, the good deed, the realisation of the project, keeping one’s word, all make hope’s promises real. When hopes are fully realised, happiness results.