Hope …

“Who lives by hope dies fasting” Italian proverb, quoted by James Howell (1593-1666) Paroimiographia. 1659.

For various reasons I have successfully avoided most birthday parties in my honor. I also have never gone to one of my school graduations. Perhaps my peers think I don’t age; more likely they think I didn’t graduate. Good on ’em.

I have attended birthday parties, usually complete with a cake made of substances that reduce the likelihood of the next birthday party. And, I have attended the graduations of others, a process wherein a person becomes an alumnus. Modern etymological studies of “alumnus” usually trace it to the Latin infinitive, Alere – to nourish. Thus, an alumnus is interpreted as a “foster child” or a “nourished one”. Older studies trace it to an obscure term for a “foundling” who, having been raised, is turned loose. Hence, “commencement”, the beginning of a new life.

Presumably, the gestating alumnus has developed certain hopes, perhaps that the field into which one has invested several years and untold sums will be there (with openings) upon graduation. Perhaps.

A ritual act, common to birthday parties, that I always found discomforting was the making of a wish and blowing out the candles. I dislike being asked to make a wish almost as much as I dislike being asked what is my favorite (fill in the blank). I don’t do wishes, and I don’t have favorites.

And, what would one hope for? To win the lottery? Oh, of course, must buy a ticket for Big Balls, or whatever they call the latest sucker tax. Some lotteries even do us the favor of calculating the odds. So, would two tickets half the odds? My odds are always 50%; either I will, or I won’t win.

I have known people who, claiming to have examined the odds, refused to buy any insurance of any kind beyond State mandated driving insurance. They usually claim the money they save in premiums will more than pay if they should ever need it. Probably true except when it comes to catastrophic illness. I have also known people who refuse elective insurance because they feel that preparing for adverse events sets them in motion. Think of a possibility and you draw it to you. Another angle comes from those who eschew hopeful thinking because it potentiates an uncomfortable state of not having. Obviously, when we hope for something we concentrate on that which we don’t have, not that which we do. We potentiate our state of want.

Although not yet rivaling insurance companies in most cases (churches excepted), there are various groups and individuals drawing big premiums from the sale of hope. So what exactly is this phenomenon that, as far as we know, is most frequently found in one aberrant form of Primate called Man?

Many aphorisms are attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. “When you want what you have, you have what you want”, “desire is the root of all suffering.” Buddhism is often and rightly viewed as the most elegant form of self psycho-therapy. Of course, there are those who say satisfaction leads to stagnation; without a sense of want we would never have advances. My childhood looms up with “No one in the family has ever done that before”, and my rejoinder “If everyone thought that way we wouldn’t have the wheel.”

Hope may “spring eternal” but its foundation can be identified: Cognitive Displacement, among other things the ability to conceive of non-existent states. While normally adaptive in its contributions such as resourceful memory and preventive foresight, it can be maladaptive in numerous ways.

Those of us who have applied our learning in Thanatology, actually working with individuals and families as they confront dying and death, have seen the darker harvests of hope. From spontaneous abortion (commonly called “miscarriage”), to the sudden or prolonged death of a child, to the death of a loved one, and to one’s own inevitable decline and death hope has been an anchor, and a victim.

People speak of realistic hope and of false hope as if there were some objective way to calculate the odds and differentiate the two. Yet, hope is a subjective state. It arises from a perceived difference between what one has and what one wants. It includes the often amorphous sense that somehow the desired state will come into being. Others, myself included, can only ask questions regarding the basis and the focus of the hope, and determine for ourselves whether we would “put our money down”, whether we would hold such a hope.

In cases of spontaneous abortion and other sudden deaths hope is, in fact, in the past. Yet, it often hangs over the present, threatening to obscure everything else from view. Gradually, with help, the What Might Be, developed while the fetus or child lived, begins to shift toward the What Might Have Been as the realization of death takes hold. And, the What Might Have Been must be put to rest with the deceased. Nowhere is this process as painful, or as necessary as in the unintentional death of a fetus, or of the death of a child. Addressing this with a parent or parents requires the clarification of three frank realities: The fetus or the child is dead; the hopes held for that fetus or that child are now null and void and must not simply be carried forward to a possible next child; and, the parent(s) must learn to differentiate what they lost from what they imagine they have lost.

In its purest and most undeveloped form, hope is a fantasy. However, hope may be developed into a Goal, with measurable Objectives to assess progress toward that Goal. When someone expresses a hope to me I can say nothing but “Oh.” On the odd chance that I am interested, I may then ask the person to delineate the following:

A. Goal statement
1. Measurable objectives, with timeframe
B. Strategy for Goal Achievement
1. Tactics for Objectives Achievement
a. Assessment of tactic appropriate resources
C. Assessment of ROI, Return on Investment

Thus, it should be clear that, without the above framework, a statement of hope is merely a statement of fantasy. Fantasies may be entertaining, but they can also be maladaptive; when allowed to stand simply on their own they distract us from the work required to bring them into reality, or to finally judge them unreachable.

I hope I win Big Balls.

A. Win Big Balls
1. Check wallet for disposable money
2. Drive to nearest Stop ‘N’ Rob
3. Inquire into Return policy for defective ticket, i.e. doesn’t
4. Buy ticket (2 to double the chances)
5. Dream what I would do with the money
6. Check drawing results
7. Deconstruct dream
8. Assess what I can now do with less money
9. Assess what I could have been doing had I not been

I hope I have made myself clear. Hint: Answer Yes unless you want me to post this again.