Hope & meaning

Hope. Meaning. Zen?

I have been thinking about hope lately for a number of reasons, due in part to a conversation with a person of my acquaintance who feels very strongly that humans have destroyed the planet irreparably, that civilization is past the tipping point, and that what many people term Armageddon or apocalypse is not merely inevitable but near. One might say she has no hope for the future.

This woman is generous, creative, happy; she is a lively activist who advocates for artistic and social justice causes–even though she has no hope for the future. Why does she bother? She might serve as a real-life example for a philosopher’s thought experiment or dilemma on the self-interest theory.

She seems quite sane. I think she illustrates how hope and meaning differ.

Hope leans inevitably toward the future. It signals a desire for a circumstance we do not have and may never attain. Even when stated in the present tense, it indicates a temporal shift, an implicit recognition of a future: “I hope things stay exactly as they are” implies there is a risk of change.

Hope is related to faith, unprovable yet deeply felt, something in which we believe (against all rational proofs).

Meaning, however, has more substance. We do not believe in meaning, we discover it. Meaning is a found thing which acts upon us by allowing us to take action…meaningful action. Meaning is temporal in the sense that it takes place in time as we understand it. It possesses an unusual characteristic in that it needs no outcome even as it operates in real time in our lives. Meaningful existence keeps us moving, and when we lose life-meaning we are likely to feel even more devastated than when we lose hope.

My acquaintance lives her life in a meaningful way, doing things that nurture a sense of meaning in her life even though she is fairly certain the outcome of her actions will be negligible. Her purpose is to share with or add meaning to the lives of others, knowing she cannot rescue everyone or steer the earth’s denizens toward utopia.

She is one of the more contented and least-anxious people I know.

After mulling these ideas over, I found myself returning to an overly-familiar Dickinson poem on this topic, the one in which she calls hope “the thing with feathers”:

Hope by Dickinson.

Consider her metaphor. Hope flies; it can escape us. I have held birds and know from experience they are not easy to catch nor to maintain a hold upon. Hope flies into its future without us even while it blesses us with its singing. What have we got then, earthbound beings that we are? A wordless tune, something that comforts without asking for anything in return–if we accept the tune as comfort enough (and we may not).

Perhaps what keeps us going, really, is not hope but the dailiness of our small but meaningful pursuits. Dickinson writing even when no one was reading. Each of us accomplishing whatever seems necessary, art or baking, advocacy or gardening, regardless of result.

Chop wood, carry water.


7 comments on “Hope & meaning

  1. Thank you Ann – beautifully well crafted and honest thoughts, thoughts to keep alive inside.


  2. singingbones says:

    Good post, Yes to the differences between hope and meaning. I have to wonder though, if your friend truly has no hope at all for a better future world, why does she even bother? In my opinion, to be totally without hope is a pretty bleak place to be, even though it may be full of meaning. I’ll be back. a question, you read a lot of poetry, are you fond of Neruda and Rilke? two of the best. cheers, SB


    • I suppose hope can be a day-to-day, in-the-moment kind of experience. My friend is a Buddhist, so I think she qualifies her experience of hope-like emotions into what she considers meaning.

      Yes I am fond of both Neruda and Rilke, in several translations since–alas–I am not language-capable with the originals. Of the two, I slightly prefer Neruda.

      Thanks for stopping to read & comment.


      • singingbones says:

        I am also quite fond of Zen buddhism, and up until your comment never realized that Buddhists don’t believe in being hopeful. I daresay the Dalai Lama projects a kind of hope out into humanity with his radiant smile alone!! here’s a quote:
        “There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
        ― Dalai Lama XIV

        You are welcome, I will return. SB


      • I think it depends upon the person and the Master he or she follows. Translation may play a role here, too. How the word “hope” is translated varies. Twenty years or so ago, I read an article on linguistics that asserted the Navaho language has no word for hope; the concept that came closest was “yearning.” A more recent article disputed that claim. So maybe the definition of hope is at issue. That’s one reason I feel comfortable with talking about meaning or purpose instead, or in addition to, hope. My friend would definitely agree with the statement “Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.” She lives that way. I try to do so, too.


      • singingbones says:

        I totally agree that linguistics and the nuances of language is a very tricky thing. Attempting to learn Danish over the past couple of years has given me a profound respect for the nuances of the English language and made me understand that words carry many meanings which can go far beyond dictionary definitions. Good point.


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