It’s been a hard couple of days in the world. Impeachment coverup. Brexit. Immigration bans. A lot of people are feeling pretty bleak about where everything is headed right about now.
Times like these are times when I look around for some kind of hope to grab on to. I’ve always been a big fan of hope. Like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, I’ve always felt that “hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things.” And hope has got me through a lot when nothing else has.
But even as I think that, I’m aware of my inner Spinoza standing to the side, scoffing at me. “Hope?” he’s saying, “despair? Both foolish. Besides, the end is already written. You’re just frustrated that you haven’t read it yet.”
The limits of hope
As crucial as hope is in my survival toolbox, Spinoza has a very different take on things. And, to be honest, I think he’s got a good point. I’d even concede that he’s right — at least if you’re going to be rational about things.
Consider: hope is only ever useful when the outcome of something is unclear. You hope to do well at a job interview. You hope the biopsy comes back normal. You hope the election later this year will produce the best result. In all of these cases, there’s no way for a mere human to know how these events will ultimately go down. The ends are uncertain. This is the realm of hope.
When was the last time you hoped that spring would follow winter? Or that the sun will rise in the morning. Or that when you add two plus two, you’ll still get four? It would be silly to hope for these things, except in the most dire or metaphorical sense. These things are certainties.
For that matter, fear works the same way. You only ever fear something when you don’t know for sure what will happen. You fear a tax audit when it’s a possibility. You fear the chance of getting caught up in the next round of layoffs. You are afraid of how you’ll cope once your parents die. Once you’re in the middle of those things, it’s not a fear anymore, it’s a reality.
For Spinoza, hope and fear form two sides of one coin: “There can be no fear without hope, and no hope without fear,” he says. That’s because both feelings arise from the same problem — a lack of certainty.
Spinoza wanted people to just be reasonable for a change. Spinoza firmly believed that everything that happens is just a waystation in an ever-unfolding chain of cause and effect. Our problem is that as silly humans, we aren’t able to see enough of that chain and can’t see how it will all play out. So to us, it very much feels like we’re making choices that have a direct effect on what will happen next. Maybe stepping on a crack really will break my mama’s back. Maybe wishing on a star will make a dream come true. Maybe if I really hope for something, it will come to be.
Pish posh, my old friend says. If you’re uncertain about a thing, that’s fine. Be uncertain. Sit with it. If it helps, tell yourself that it’s all going to work out as the great chain of cause-and-effect demands it will. But don’t flatter yourself into thinking that by feeling good hopeful about it, it will make it any better. Or that by worrying yourself into a heart attack, you can stop it. Those are different flavors of ignorance, he’d say.
Abandon hope, ye who enter?
So does that mean that we should just give up on hope? Is that even possible? Would you do it even if you could?
Honestly, I couldn’t. The worst times in my life were the ones when I felt no hope for a better tomorrow. Hope has given me the courage to keep going when I could find no other reason to.
Besides, another part of Spinoza’s philosophy says to be true to who you are, and that hopeful core is just part of me. Spinoza might argue for the rational ideal, but if we’re being honest, I’ve always been a tad suspect of people who underplay the importance of human emotion. Cataloging feelings is one thing — but living in a way that allows emotion to be a powerfully positive force in your life is entirely another.
I don’t really think I’d want to give that up.
At the same time, I have to acknowledge the rational simplicity of Spinoza’s point of view, too.
The simple fact is, there’s a lot we don’t know about where we are in this global minute. A lot of countries are hell-bent on galloping toward nationalism in a way they haven’t since the run-up to the World Wars. My own country is being run (into the ground) by a man intent on becoming an all-powerful cross between Idiocracy’s President Camacho, Back to the Future’s Biff Tannen and Game of Throne’s Joffrey Baratheon. Polar ice caps are vanishing and seas are rising. The world’s most desperate people are seeking any safe haven, and those safe places are increasingly turning their backs to them.
And maybe instead of just hoping for a better tomorrow or fearing a worse one, we should just sit a moment and be with it.
That doesn’t mean give up. It doesn’t even mean give up hope.
But perhaps a minute can be spared for standing still and just seeing the world for what it is this moment, too. Stop. Observe. Listen. Reason.