The Hope Dilemma
Mindfulness practices are seeping into every aspect of social life. We have mindfulness at work, mindfulness at schools, and the list goes on. Very high investments are being put into mental health services, while the list increases with unprecedented levels of mental illness, depression, and anxiety.
A recent Gallup poll showed that more people feel negative emotions such as anger, sadness, pain, worry, and stress than ever before. This is not due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this upward spike in global unhappiness has been steadily increasing for a decade before COVID.
There is a fundamental problem of unhappiness. There is something that seems very wrong. There is so much of what we want materially. 2022 is much better on many metrics than any previous period. Global poverty rates are falling, and literacy rates are climbing. In public health, more people are getting access to health services, while infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are improving. The global gender gap in education is closing. Thus, as many thinkers have shown in graphs, progress has continued unbroken throughout our history. But it raises the question, why isn’t it perceived that way?
The unhappiness in the world is a signifier to a loss of hope. The opposite of happiness isn’t anger or sadness. The opposite of happiness is hopelessness. If you are angry or sad it means you have something to care about, you have some hope. Therefore, unhappiness is, partly, a signifier of hopelessness, resignation, and indifference (at least in modern developed societies).
There is a perplexing paradox to hope. Hope means looking into the future and finding problems to solve. Problems are what feed us with hope. Without problems there ceases to be hope. Today as human progress reached unprecedented heights, many of our problems are being solved. As a result, a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness has enveloped across rich and modern societies. Thus the paradox, as the world gets better, there is less to hope for — hence the frustration.
Ideologies, following religions, for long fueled the hopes of the people. Hope, however, was a two-edged sword. At a time when the world had a lot to hope for, it became destructive and the root cause of all conflicts. It was the same hope that colonised countries to spread human progress and freedom, it was the same hope for racial superiority that put people into concentration camps, and it was the same hope for global equality that led to the communist revolution and its aftermath, which killed and imprisoned millions and thousands of people.
The prevalent loss of hope is a signifier to the shattering of ideologies. Ideologies promised growth and tangible results but unlike spiritual religion, they lack infallibility. Ideologies, because they are constantly proven and then disproven, offer weak psychological stability upon which to build one's hope. When they fail they throw us into the uncomfortable truth.
The German philosopher Neitzche foresaw this coming malaise of ideologies that technological progress would bring upon the world.
Hope requires something to be broken. And it requires us to be anti-something, and hence the source of conflict. But what about us well-intended people reading this who want to make the world a better place? If we want to keep the world better off, this should raise a question: can we cope to live without hope?
Neitzche again provides us with an answer to this paradox. He thought that we must look beyond hope. We must look beyond values. We must evolve into something beyond good and evil. This morality he called Amor Fati or Love of One’s Fate. “My formula for greatness in a human being… is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it — all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary — but love it.”
This means the unconditional acceptance of all life with its highs and lows. It means hope for nothing. Hope for what already is because hope is ultimately empty as anything our minds conceptualizes is flawed and “therefore damaging if worshipped unconditionally”. Hope for this, “for the infinite opportunity and oppression present in every single moment”. And then act despite it and love what is. In other words, become present in every moment.
Immanuel Kant provides another answer to this paradox of hope. He foresaw that any attempt to control the future unleashes the destructive powers of hope. Instead, he decided that the only logical way to improve the world was by improving ourselves — by becoming more virtuous — by treating ourselves and others as ends and never as means. For example, being honest with oneself and with others is an end in itself. Not using honesty as a means for another selfish end but an end in and of itself to being a more ethical person. Or loving unconditionally, that is an end. That is maturity.
For now, the present is what we control. Don’t put your hopes on a better future, that will only prevent you from living in the present. So, start with yourself. Be a better person. Be a better human. Be more empathetic, compassionate, disciplined, courageous, and ethical. Just don’t hope, be.