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Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Psalm 42:5-6

“Hope springs eternal.” I wonder why. What is it about hope that causes it to be an integral part of the human soul such that it “springs eternal”? Bernard Schumacher, in his book, A Philosophy of Hope, says this (2):

…hope is philosophically significant by virtue of the fact that it constitutes a fundamental and central mode of human existence; it is the principle driving force of the historical-temporal human being… A human being without hope is like a walking corpse, which is both physiologically and metaphysically absurd.

“The principle driving force of the…human being.” Imagine that. If hope is that foundational to us as humans, it seems we should be able to answer the seemingly simply question, “What is the object of our hope?”. What is your answer? Perhaps it is not so easy for you.

Philosophers often talk of two types of hope: ordinary and foundational, and their opposites, ordinary despairs and foundational despair. Ordinary hopes (plural) are those things for which we hope every day: the local team to win, get a job, find the right house, rain, sun, pass a test, make it to work on time, stay healthy, our various plans…the list can be long. When the object of an ordinary hope fails to be fulfilled, we face ordinary despair, the depths of which depend on the strength of our ordinary hope in the object. Our day-to-day lives are filled with fulfilled and unfulfilled hopes, with ordinary hopes and ordinary despairs.

Perhaps at this point it is good to make several distinctions. Hope differs from desire. I have a strong desire to one day walk on the moon; however, I have no real hope of accomplishing it. Hope finds its basis in at least the real possibility that it can be fulfilled whereas desires have no such condition. Hope differs from optimism in a more subtle way. Optimism is rooted in a positive attitude toward a positive outcome. “Things will turn out for the best,” or “This too shall pass” are common statements of optimism. The “best” or what we want to “pass” is too vague to be called a hope. Optimism sits on the surface of our soul and doesn’t penetrate deeply.

These distinctions are important. Desire or optimism mistaken for hope can lead to unwarranted despair. Continuing my example, I desire to walk on the moon; it will not happen, it is simply not a realistic expectation for me to hold. To despair over it is to live in a fantasy world of unreality. So it is with optimism. In reality we know that things don’t always turn out for the best as we want to define “best,” meaning comfort, happiness, financial security, etc.–the Disney movie sort of happily ever after world in which the animals sing and dance around us. Again, despair from failed optimism is unwarranted.

Hope, real hope, according to some philosophers, has at least six characteristics: it is at least possible for the thing hoped for to occur; what we hope for must be good in some respect; it is difficult to obtain and requires effort; it is outside of our control; the thing hoped for may not be fulfilled (uncertainty); fosters an attitude of expectant waiting.

Foundational hope (singular) is different from ordinary hopes. Foundational hope remains when all other hopes are gone. This is best imagined in an end-of-life scenario: the martyr, the dying patient, or the death row inmate with no more hope of appeal. Without foundational hope we would be like a “walking corpse.”

Foundational hope sounds interesting….