“I kinda see what you’re saying (in reference to the post “Holding On”). But would you say the same thing to someone in war ravaged Syria who has lost everything? Or to someone wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life? Some people need hope to survive. In a world in which there is so much suffering, how can you say hope is a mirage?”
Because it is. But that’s not to say that it isn’t a useful mirage.
However, let me dial back a bit and clarify something. In the article you are referring to, the questioner wasn’t asking about “hope”. He was asking about “happiness”. And he was seeking to define happiness as “having something to look forward to”. That is the definition of hope. In other words, he was equating hope with happiness and inferring that those who have something to hope for are generally happy.
That’s typically how most people in society understand happiness even if they don’t explicitly admit to it. The day I graduate, the day I get married, the day I get promoted, the day I own my own business, the day I finally retire, the day I win the lottery, the day the kids finally move out, the day I finally divorce his worthless ass, the day I’m recognized for my talents, the day I am liberated, the day I become enlightened as the Buddha was…
Happiness is almost always projected as a “happily ever after”. And we are the Cinderellas, the Snow Whites and the Sleeping Beauties suffering our wretched lot awaiting the day when we will finally be seen for the diamonds-in-the-rough that we are, be awoken from our sleep and emerge into the lives we were truly destined to inhabit.
When one is pathologically looking towards the future to provide a solution to one’s present, one has no choice but to understand happiness in this manner. This is how hope distorts reality and shifts everything of substance into the future, leaving the present moment dry, hollow and something we are eagerly seeking to get past.
However, I mentioned in the beginning, that hope can be useful. In circumstances of extreme deprivation and duress, hope is often the coping mechanism that our minds use in order to protect our psyches from capitulating. So, in your example of war torn Syria, a woman who has been taken from her family and forced to become an ISIS bride may need to use hope in order for her to preserve some sense of sanity. Her circumstances, being as traumatic and extreme as they are, may need an equally extreme psychological mechanism to offset the impact.
Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures.
And so, hope certainly plays its part in the human drama. However if, rather than as a temporary measure, it becomes one’s standard mode of functioning, hope quickly becomes self-defeating and detrimental to its own cause.
Let’s take the case of the wrongfully convicted person who has been sentenced to life, that you brought up in your question:
In fact, this is the theme of the award winning drama series, “When They See Us”, which tells the true story of the Central Park Five; five black teenagers who were wrongly convicted of the rape of a white female jogger in Central Park. Of the five, four were sent to juvenile correctional facilities where they served sentences ranging from six to twelve years. But one boy, Korey Wise, the only one who had just turned 16, was sent to adult prison. The great irony being, that of the five he was the only one who hadn’t been charged with anything originally. He had simply gone down to the precinct to give his friend, who had been charged, moral support. And he was sentenced along with the others.
Korey, still a teen, spent his first few months in prison being brutally beaten and raped. Yet, he held on to the hope of seeing his mother on her prison visits. A sympathetic guard advised him to request solitary confinement in order to avoid the other prison inmates who wanted him dead. And so, he spent a large portion of his time served in solitary. Each time he was transferred to a new facility, he would request solitary confinement.
After serving a few years, he had his first parole hearing. He was informed by the parole board, that if he confessed to the crimes his parole would be considered. Yet, he refused to. Even though he had held onto the hope of being released so strongly, over the years, his sense of the injustice done to him and his insistence upon the truth was more powerful. And so, because he refused to confess, he was denied parole. This happened over and over through the years.
Eventually, he just stopped going to the parole hearings altogether. He found peace and acceptance in his circumstances even if they had been unjust. In other words, he had found his own happiness and meaning. While other inmates had turned to the Bible or the Koran in order to find that meaning, Korey found it in his own solitude and sense of being, regardless of how dire the outer circumstances were. It was only when the real rapist confessed, that the case was reopened and all the wrongful convictions overturned. And Korey was finally released 13 years after being imprisoned.
Hope is a temporary stopgap measure that is effective in offsetting a psychologically distressing reality. However, when it becomes pathological it has two very destructive side effects:
First, it projects a view of one’s circumstances as being perpetually distressing.
Second, it creates an identity of oneself as a perennial victim of one’s circumstances.
So, while one might say the ISIS bride in Syria or the wrongfully convicted teenager are justified in saying that they are victims of distressing circumstances, most of us living in our wealthy first world societies with all the freedoms and conveniences we enjoy, are not.
For most of us, suffering is psychologically, rather than circumstantially, generated. Thus the solutions to that suffering must also be psychological. Looking for circumstantially related solutions to psychologically generated suffering is like trying to feed a starving child with positive affirmations. As long as we continue seeking outwards for answers to the lacks we experience inside, we remain hopelessly alienated from ourselves.
So, we need to inquire,” why are we NOT happy?” We aren’t being imprisoned, we aren’t being brutally beaten, raped or degraded. (Of course, many have faced trauma at certain points in their lives and are attempting to cope with the aftermath of that. Yet, is that our present reality?). We live in relative comfort, in a society in which our needs for survival are being met, where we are afforded freedoms to choose, to express, to live and earn.
So, why do we struggle to be happy?
One core reason is that our societies are fuelled by the energies of hope. Hope, not happiness, is what drives us to seek “more”. Hope is what drives consumerism. It’s why we keep buying more and more crap we don’t need. Hope is also what drives the spiritual industry.
The spiritual industry, which is really supposed to be humanity’s domain of truth and, by extension, happiness, is really a giant factory for manufacturing hope.
Hope has a soothing effect but is spiritually empty. For the spiritually impoverished and suffering, it provides an immediate sense of relief. And this relief is confused with happiness. It’s like giving a malnutritioned child a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. It works as a great filler to curb their hunger. But at a certain point they will need a real meal.
There are certain tribes in sub-Saharan Africa where young women are intentionally “fattened” so that they may seem like eligible brides to their suitors. As soon as a girl comes of age, she is kept in a “fattening hut” where she is virtually imprisoned for a period of months or even years. Here the girls are supervised by “fatteners”: elderly women whose job it is to force feed them often against their own will. They are made to consume several thousand calories a day and restricted from any form of activity or exercise.
These communities, that have traditionally faced famine and starvation, project obesity as a symbol of beauty. A man with an obese wife is someone who must have access to copious amounts of food as well as help since his wife need not engage in any housework. Being grossly overweight in this society is a mark of success and prosperity.
While many of us may balk at such a culture, our own lives are not all that far removed. In fact, our own consumerism is just a sophisticated manifestation of the same phenomenon. Driven by a sense of existential famine, we seek to consume more and more resources in an effort to validate to ourselves and to others that we are indeed prosperous or happy.
It is the same phenomenon also predominant in spirituality. Our gurus and spiritual teachers act as our spiritual “fatteners” feeding us high calorie, nutritionally empty rhetoric and discouraging us from doing any real “work” of our own. A bloated image of bliss, serenity, peace and love is the outward show we are all encouraged to emulate. Rather than spiritual and psychological health, we are preoccupied with posturing; making fantastical shows of our own attainment, peace, equanimity and enlightenment.
Hope is that high calorie sentiment, empty of substance yet full of promise that we are being force fed oblivious to our own circumstances.
Yet, a truly healthy physique is neither malnutritioned nor obese. It is robust and able to interact with its environment in an optimal manner with little need for outside intervention for its normal operation.
Similarly, a healthy psyche is neither one that is defined by its sense of misery and deprivation nor is preoccupied with ostentatious shows of spiritual accomplishment or material excess. It is optimally responsive to its environment.
A healthy adult body is capable of securing its own nutrition; not requiring someone else to constantly feed it nor suffering when that feeding is withheld. It is equipped with everything it needs to procure it’s own nourishment.
Similarly, a healthy psyche needs no external guidance or advice in order for it to negotiate life. It does not require wisdom or teachings to constantly bolster it nor does it suffer when that guidance is withheld. It is equipped to procure all the psychological and spiritual nourishment it needs from its IMMEDIATE circumstances, whatever those may be.
“Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime”, so goes the famous proverb.
The vast majority of religion and contemporary spirituality, is nothing more than people being rationed a fish a day by their priests, their gurus and their teachers. None of these “keepers of spiritual truths” are interested in empowering any of us to learn how to fish. Rather, they have made a business out of keeping people coming back for more.
And so, there is one stark similarity between the fish market and the Spiritual Marketplace that hits you the moment you walk into either of one of these places.
The stench can be quite unbearable.