Hope against hope

My turn to do the Evening Standard column again, as follows…

Hope is a central virtue in much self-help. It’s a key strength in the science of happiness too, defined as being optimistic and having a positive attitude towards the future. It helps maintain your cheer in the here and now. But this conception of hope, though comforting, is almost entirely wrong.

In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, the writer J.G. Ballard gets to the heart of the matter. He describes the, apparently, most hopeless moment in his life. He, his wife and their young family are on holiday. She doesn’t feel well. So they go to hospital and she is diagnosed with appendicitis. The surgery should be routine, low risk, uneventful. Only, she doesn’t recover and dies.

He is left bereft. And yet, he refuses to despair. ‘From the start,’ he writes, ‘I was determined to keep my family together.’

It’s worth reflecting on that sentence because it speaks volumes about hope. There is the use of the word ‘determined.’ Hope is a decision, a form of courage, a commitment. The same note is heard in Ballard’s reference to ‘from the start.’ If he is living with the end of his wife’s life, he is also brave enough to see it as a new beginning. ‘While there’s life there’s hope,’ as the proverb wisely has it.

Hope as courage is wholly unlike optimism and good cheer. ‘I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,’ we say. That’s a travesty of the verb. We might all vow never to use hope in that way again! For there is nothing determined or committed in wishing about the weather. You can’t hope away grey skies in hope’s real sense.

What’s also striking about Ballard is that his hope is not rose-tinted. It’s steely hard. ‘Alcohol was a close friend and confident in the early days,’ he confesses. The death of his wife was agonising and sometimes the pain was too much to bear. That speaks of the grittiness of hope. For, in truth, hope is informed and strengthened by such realism. It can stare reality in the face, and stare it down. It can cope with the worst that might happen, and can survive to yearn for better.

Hope is a stance taken towards something or someone that is worth committing to – like Ballard does towards his children. It comes from the guts. And hope against hope is powerful enough to change the world.