The promise of America has long been based upon high hopes for a future that will surpass the present and redeem the past, as well. Yet, recent polls indicate the mood of the country is growing ever darker, both less hopeful and more cynical.
Corruption at high levels of banking and business along with scandals in politics and in the media cause people to lose trust in the very institutions intended to protect their rights and freedoms. The persistent loss of jobs and callous threats of abandoning the poor, the sick and the elderly cause people to lose hope for meaningful change. There also exists an instinctive sense that the fixed ideologies and hardened attitudes that dominate politics cannot possibly solve the wild array of dilemmas facing modern society. In the face of endless wars and intractable problems, Americans, often seen as the most hopeful and futuristic people in the world, are rapidly becoming hopeless.
In many ways, it is the nature of hope to become lost. Most hopes turn out to be false hopes based upon wishful thinking and false expectations that cannot survive encounters with harsh reality. The problem isn’t simply that people lose hope, but that hope turns into its opposite: despair. The problem is that people tend to cling to naïve hopes for too long and avoid despair at any cost. The problem is that people often fall from the heights of expectation and entitlement into the depths of futility and total resignation from life. In America, the “tipping point” between hope and despair may already have been reached as more and more people become cynical about change and bitter about the blatant betrayals of public trust.
Yet despair, so often avoided by innocents and cynics alike, is not simply a blind alley or a dead end. The territory of despair becomes the deeper ground and darker earth from which our most enduring visions of life arise. Not simply the “light at the end of the tunnel,” nor a sudden solution from the outside, but the light hidden inside the darkest hours of life. Any hope for this increasingly hopeless world might have to be found inside the currents of despair that accompany the endless news reports of cultural unraveling and environmental disaster.
From the view of the soul, facing an overwhelming array of troubles is an old story. While the facts can never tell the whole story, a genuine myth is a story for all times. At this time, we seem to be revisiting the ancient tale of Pandora’s Box, where the lid came off and all the troubles of life flooded into the world at once. In older versions of the story, it wasn’t Pandora who caused the trouble in the first place, but her notoriously short-sighted husband who caused all hell to break loose.
Pandora, whose name means “all gifted and all giving,” had married Epimetheus, the less-famous brother of Prometheus. Prometheus means “far-seeing” and it was he who foresaw that humans would need the element of fire to survive and to develop culture. However, Epimetheus means “unable to see ahead” and “only able to see something after it has happened.” In older tales, it was the impulsive and uninformed brother of Prometheus who lifted the lid and only began to see the extent of the damage after all the troubles were loosed upon the world.
We are the descendants of both mythical brothers, and ever since Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave humans access to technology we have been “playing with fire.” And we suffer a kind of blindness whenever we decide long-term issues with short-term ideas and a lack of genuine vision. Epimetheus seems to be very present again, in the form of political blindness and short-term thinking that makes an already troubled situation become increasingly perilous.
Politicians, narrowly focused upon winning the next election or dominating the “24-hour news cycle” blindly decide issues that have long-term effects for everyone. Bankers, who should know better, risk all stability for immediate gain. The media class becomes able to see only one story at a time, and much of the electorate votes along narrowing lines of seeming self-interest, even sending people out to govern who declare that they don’t believe in government.
Those afflicted with blind beliefs and profound short-sightedness seem to have risen to the top again in the form of willful ideologues and single-issue groups. Ideologies and fixed beliefs are by their nature short-sighted and uninspired. Even in the best of times they are a poor substitute for genuine vision; in the hard times they become an excuse for brutal disregard of whoever might see things differently. The widespread loss of vision combined with willful self-interest can cause everyone to lose all hope in this world.
Yet in the old myth, Hope hid under the lid as all the pains of life were released. It’s as if all the ills and ailments, all the scandals and betrayals and the rampant skullduggery must be faced before the hidden hope of life can be found again. It’s as if things must become hopeless before a deeper sense of hope can return from the depths of the human heart. This “second level of hope” includes a darker knowledge of the world and a sharper insight into one’s own soul. As the pioneering American philosopher William James wrote: “… the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.”
There is a second level of hope found, not by clinging to old dreams or by denying despair, but by surviving it. When life becomes darkest the eye of the soul begins to see. “Hope springs eternal” when people begin to see beyond the parade of facts and the litanies of ideologies and learn to trust the deeper values of individual life as well as the underlying truths of human culture. Great crises are not solved by simply conserving assets, but by finding inner resources that were hidden from sight.
The sense of connecting to the underlying spirit of life and the hidden resiliency of the individual human soul is the source of genuine hope. The second level of hope is based in creative imagination that appears when people honestly stay in the tension of opposing ideas long enough that a surprising third way forward appears. The second level and deeper meaning of hope depends upon the deep power of the human soul to imagine and therefore to create, renew and innovate. When all hope is lost and all seems headed for disaster, it is genuine imagination that is missing and needs to be found again.