One night, the captain of a small fishing vessel decides that he doesn’t want to risk losing his position while he dreams in the night so, just before he goes below deck to bed, he takes the anchor and tosses it overboard. He makes one final check above deck, then retires for a night of sleep, confident that, in the morning, he won’t have lost his position. Intellectually, he knows that not even the strongest anchor is foolproof: he knows that he could wake in the morning to discover he’s miles from where he should be, lost in the vast sea. Like any captain would, he knows that. Yet, he rests unafraid, enjoys peaceful dreams.
A woman puts her children in the backseat of a compact car, gets in and turns the ignition on. She drives down the highway, telling funny stories to her children, singing Old McDonald Had a Farm and My Girl along with them. When the children begin to tire of the journey, she drives while simultaneously engaging in mini-games, like “I Spy,” “Quiet Mouse” and “Doodlebug.” Often, only one hand grips the steering wheel. Intellectually, she knows the number of car crashes in the United States is astronomical, she knows that, just around the corner, could be a drunk driver that could ram into her car, kill her and her children. No “smart technology” is smart enough to be able to prevent such a tragedy. She knows this. Yet, she still drives with a smile multiple times, every day, knowingly risking death.
A middle school student steps onto the yellow school bus every morning, even though he knows there’s three bullies waiting to pick on him. Despite their constant insults, he keeps his head bent, focuses on studying and, every six weeks, brings home an Honor Roll report card. Even though they embarrass him, physically beat him, even though they make him cry, he never loses sight of why he’s at school in the first place. Eventually, he graduates high school with honors, then moves on to complete college. Even when the emotional pain of being teased and bullied became intense, he never gave up, never skipped class, never quit.
Their first kiss was an out-of-this-world, high-fly, home-run experience. Fireworks exploded, her heart sang. Every moment in his presence was magic. Until he left, and she had to wonder why he’d ever stayed in the first place. She spent nights in tears, days feeling bruised and confused. Her heart, broken. Even though, initially, she swore off men altogether, she still had visions of a wedding, the white gown, a man committing to always loving her. Eventually, even though she wasn’t the same, she found someone else on whom to risk her heart again. She knew he could leave. She knew he could throw her into the abyss, just like the other one had. But she knowingly, consciously, gave her all.
If you ask me, despite the encouraging stories that can be told about Job and how trials make you stronger and all are usually for the best, despite all that, it seems like it should go against human nature to do things that have harmed us in the past. We’re not masochists. We don’t enjoy pain. So, I fail to grasp, fully, why we don’t seem to learn our lesson the first time. The first time I had a terrible car wreck, seems to me, would cure me of my desire for my own automobile, no matter how freeing it may appear to be. Seems to me that being traumatized daily at school would be more than enough of a valid reason to stop going. Seems to me that learning the first time that another human being has the power to shatter my sense of worth, and leave my heart hurting, would forever cure me of the desire to have an intimate relationship again. But…. it doesn’t.
Because we have experience, and we know that circumstances don’t always repeat themselves. It is possible to find someone who loves you as much as you love him. It is possible to drive your whole life without being involved in a deadly car crash. It is possible to survive bullying with a degree, which infinitely raises your chances of economic health. We all know these things. In other words, hope of success, be it personal or professional, moves us forward. Lately, though, that hasn’t been enough for me, tell you the truth. I want to understand where hope comes from, what exactly I keep allowing myself to be motivated by.
Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but I’ve never really seen the point of partying on New Years’ Eve, or of making New Years’ resolutions, given the high likelihood of failure. Really, I’ve never really seen the point of getting so excited because it’s a new year. Do we throw these massive parties, give ourselves permission to overuse alcohol on this one night, because we think we’ve accomplished something, merely by living through a full year? Or do we do it because we’re putting our hope in the idea that just because it’s a new year, something about us, or our lives, will change? Now, don’t get me wrong…. of course, it’s possible that, over the course of one year, things about me can change. Of course it’s possible that, last year, someone overcame an addiction, or escaped from an abusive situation, or got married, or had their first child….. all reasons for legitimate celebration—-but, most of the time, most of us, just lead quiet lives, with quiet victories and quiet setbacks, 364 days of the year and then, on that last day, we go wild, hoping that the coming year will bring excitement, abundant joy, unprecedented personal and professional growth. In other words…. we devote one night of the year to joyfully losing ourselves in hope. I’m sorry, but that seems a little…well, silly.
Until I stop and actually think about what hope is, and where it comes from.
Sometimes I’m guilty of forgetting that hope is not a passive emotion: it requires active participation. We say, “I hope tomorrow is better,” or “I hope you feel better.” Saying such things is a nice thing to do—-but, at the moment when we say them, we’re not actually doing much. Sometimes I feel like I may, deep down, just be saying such things to make myself feel better about not actually being able to fix a friend’s problem. I’m very much a do-it-myself kind of person. I don’t like waiting around for things to get resolved, I don’t ever procrastinate, I spend quite a bit of time looking for possible problems that might arise and figuring out ways to resolve them, when they do. I’m not a pessimist, I don’t think that everything that’s going to happen will be bad—but I’m a realist, I don’t expect everything that happens to be good. I know that even the best day on earth has its share of small setbacks (traffic jams, forgetting things, rushing, etc) and even the worst day on earth has its share of small victories (strangers holding doors open, pillows to hug and birds chirping). Because I’m hyper-aware of the fact that setbacks can traumatize and scar, it’s true that sometimes I pay closer attention to setbacks than triumphs: after all, I think, anything positive may alter a life, but it will do so by providing confidence, encouragement and pride: these are good things, they don’t need fixing. Setbacks, on the other hand, can leave a person lonely, scared or sad: these are things that do need fixing. Fixing is, I think, one of the reasons I’ve been placed on this earth, so I look for things to fix. I’m very good at fixing things….except, I can’t always do it.
Sometimes, after spending hours or days trying to help something, I end up with nothing more to do than lay in bed at night, wide awake, hoping. What am I doing in those moments, exactly? Well, the mother who puts her children in a car and drives is imagining that, should she get in a wreck, the seatbelt will secure her children, saving their lives. The fisherman imagines that, should a storm rise in the night, the anchor will grip the sand at the bottom of the ocean, holding the boat in place. The child being bullied imagines the pride on his parents faces when he accepts his high school diploma: the idea that that day is really going to happen provides him the necessary motivation to sit another day on the yellow school bus with the bullies. The girl who’s heart is broken imagines meeting someone who loves her as much as she loves him, she pictures herself walking down the aisle, imagining she’s met someone whom she can totally trust. Hope, then, expresses itself through the imagination. But… well, I imagine stories every day of my life. The other day, I pulled out thousands of sheets of paper on which are written fictional stories. While it could be argued that hope is imbued and implied in fictional stories, true hope is more than imagining fairy tales. After all, fairy tales, by very definition, are make-believe, they’re not real and, realistically, won’t ever happen. No one is ever rescued by Prince Charming. In the real world, Prince Charming is flawed, and just as capable of breaking a heart as the previous toad. Hope wouldn’t be powerful if it was just imagining make believe things.
But that’s not what it is.
Hope is imagining the possibility of what we know, based on experience, can be reality. We know that true love is possible because we’ve felt it before. We know that anchors hold ships because they’ve done so in the past. We know that seat belts save lives because we’ve seen proof. We know that bullies will go away, eventually, and good grades combined with dedication produce degrees. So, when I say I hope a friend “feels better”, what I’m really saying is that I’m looking forward to another day, I’m imagining a day that I’ve experienced in the past, where my friend is healthy, smiling, ready for conversation and emotionally, physically strong again. What I’m really saying is that I’m comforted by the idea that one day soon, I’ll have more time with my friend, time that will be just as valued as the time I’ve spent with that friend in the past is. Hope isn’t about fairy tales, it’s about allowing the positive events of our past to sustain us through setbacks, and hope becomes alive when we allow ourselves to depend on it by imagining scenarios while also reminding ourselves that those scenarios will become tomorrow’s reality. We want time with that person enough that the belief, the hope, that, if only we can get past this awful day at work, we will get it, is enough motivation to keep us in our office a few more hours. We can withstand anything if the motivation to do so is strong enough—and we have the presence of divine grace.
When we become sad, depressed, we lay in the bed and we sleep, trying to block out the horrible reality we find ourselves in. Some of us, like me, erase the horrible realities we sometimes endure and create more positive ones in which we can lose ourselves. Some drink until they’re cross-eyed, then pass out — deliberately, so that they don’t have to think about reality. Some of us do worse things to our bodies, and our spirits, when our supply of joy gets low. Sometimes the negative things we’re faced with seem overwhelming, and we don’t understand how the ding-dong world we’re supposed to get past it.
I’ve been told things that hurt so badly they’ve echoed in my head for years. I was in the midst of things so horrible that, despite all the writings I’ve done, despite all the speaking I’ve managed to do, I still haven’t been able to discuss. Psychologists scare the living crap out of me. But I remember that, while those things were going on, I would imagine a better day. Mainly, my hopes centered on children. I used to imagine that, one day, I’d have a little girl to whom I’d sing Alabama’s “Thistlehair, the Christmas Bear” song. It used to make me smile. One day, my Junior year of high school, I took to the 11th grade, a baby doll that I carried around with me to each class, not caring one iota if anyone said anything insulting to me about it (of course, McGavock is heaven: no one said a single unkind thing to me. Stackhouse was actually the closest: he rolled his eyes and shook his head). I used to lie awake in bed, after experiencing live nightmares, imagining someone who really cared hugging me. Just hugging; I didn’t have a name, but I imagined a strong hug, one that would make me feel protected. It would have been crazy easy for me to develop a mistrust of men. It would have been easy for me to develop a false belief that they were all out to hurt me. I never suffered from such a belief, because of that that hope I imagined every night.
Today, I spend the nighttime hours as an owl, inventing strategies and creative games that one day my girls might remember me playing with them. I know it’s possible that they might remember, because I can remember things from when I was six years old. So, I imagine it being true fifteen years from now for them. Imagining what I know can be reality equals hope. Reminding myself that what I hope for will only come true if I take an active role in making it so motivates me to do what I have to do to ensure that one day I can look back and smile, realizing that my hopes have come true.
I can’t write about hope without remembering the baby Jesus, whose birth we just celebrated. I’ve spent pages explaining how hope is imagining something we know from experience can be reality. But none of us have actually seen Jesus. Yet, I believe that one day, He’ll descend from the clouds and fold me in the warmest, securest hug I’ve ever felt, one that will melt away any remaining fear or doubt of safety I’ve ever had. Is hope the same thing as believing something? I’m not sure; that line is gray, that question worthy of a separate blog. What I do know is that, when I read the Bible or walk out of church feeling hope spread like fire through my heart, I’m hoping with experienced knowledge. I have had too many personal encounters with the Holy Spirit to have any doubt that He’s real, and that His word is true. Maybe I didn’t walk beside Him, maybe I haven’t been able to touch the scars in His hands—but He holds my hand when I ask Him to. He guided me through nights where I thought I was being physically torn in two. I’m not without my scars, I’m not without my issues, and I’m certainly not without my flaws, but I wouldn’t be as sane as I generally like to think of myself as being without Him. Without giving away unnecessary details, suffice to say, I’ve felt Him. You know, I see gravel every day of my life, but not until I step on it with my bare feet does it become real to me. I see branches swaying on the trees often, too, but not until the wind lifts the hair off my face do I become aware of the reality of the wind. I play with the girls every day, but not until they wrap their little arms around me does it strike me again how deeply I love them. Sometimes the most powerful things, and the most real things, aren’t the ones we can physically see, but are, instead, the ones we feel. I may not see Him face to face right now, but I feel Him and so I can hope, imagine and look forward to the day when His shining face smiles at me, His secure and confidant voice promises me that I am made in His image.
Hope is more than make believe, it’s more than fancy, and our imaginations are the fuel that ignites it. Our imaginations give birth to hope because once our minds picture something for which we hope, we become that much more determined to transform the picture in our heads to a reality we can hold. It is possible to become so sad that we can’t turn light the imagination lamp; in those times, we need friends to remind us of tangible things for which we can be grateful and derive motivation. Maybe the new year is a day that many use to turn on their imaginations, to spark the flame, to begin to hope in earnest. But, on the last day of January, when the resolutions have failed already and bills for which there is no money are due again, perhaps we can set aside some time to reflect, to think, to imagine, to refuel …. to hope.