I am not an optimist. I do not believe things will work out well. Take these statements as a context for this essay about the importance of seeking (and building) hope. In my previous post, I wrote about the elusive nature of truth and how, even in the absence of absolute, undeniable truths, it is still important and valuable to continue to seek the truth. There is a small parallel here: like truth, we benefit from seeking hope even though hope may be elusive.
Hope is an emotion or intellectual state
Hope is an emotional/imaginative construct: it is the anticipation or even expectation of something good. When we have hope, that is a real emotional benefit. But too often, our hopes are slim and seem hugely improbable. When hopes seem too far out of reach, they are often replaced by despair and apathy.
Hopes too easily realized do little to improve emotional states: to “hope” that you can do something trivial gives little emotional boost: the “hope” that you can successfully prepare a cup of tea is not going to inspire you to carry out some other difficult task in the same way that your hopes for a good vacation may inspire you to quickly wrap up loose ends at work.
A writer ought to have big hopes (while also being realistic about them). I was talking with a writer who said he had something important that should matter to everyone, and then immediately backtracked to ask “who am I to be so egotistical?” But a writer needs that ego. It’s true and good for this writer to have concern that his work isn’t good enough—that concern can drive efforts to improve on weaknesses, and it’s realistic to accept that one may have weaknesses—but it’s also important that he have the hope that he can be great. Without the hope of greatness, and if you constantly tell yourself that you aren’t good enough to achieve greatness, you won’t make the effort. Most of us won’t achieve greatness, but many or even most of us can achieve good work. But almost none of us will achieve either good work or greatness without striving for that highest level of achievement and significance that we imagine.
Speaking personally, for over a decade, I’ve been writing to help other writers. I believe that I can help other writers, and I even believe that the ideas I have to share can help the vast majority of struggling writers. But I also have to accept that my work has mostly gone unnoticed. My blog has never had many readers; my books have never had many readers. Maybe they’re not even as good as I imagine. All of that is true, and still I hope that I can help people who struggle to write. Pragmatically, these two conflicting views—that I can greatly help lots of people, and that I help very few people—are both possible. It’s possible that I “could” help, even if I don’t. Hope operates in a realm of uncertainty. It’s possible that I could win the lottery, even though it’s very unlikely. If I focus on the possibility of winning, I will take the chance, and thus will write (or will enter the lottery). If I focus on the low probability of success, then I might not take the action.
Ignoring the probabilities
To build hope, it’s sometimes important to deny the probabilities, or even the perceived realities. Buying a lottery ticket is a form of denying the probabilities: your lottery ticket is very unlikely to win you anything, much less a jackpot of millions. The logical choice is to pass on the lottery ticket because the expected return is less than the cast of paying. At the same time, if the cost of entry is low, it may be worth taking a chance if for no other reason than to have some hope—as the saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t play.
Writing and other endeavors of skill share some of this dynamic: it’s good to envision greatness, even though the chance of achieving greatness is small. Still, writing and other skilled activities have additional dimensions that shift the dynamic: although the necessary investment of effort in a writing practice is not trivial—you have to keep investing day after day—writing can offer positive returns even if you don’t hit the jackpot of becoming a rich bestseller.
If you buy a lottery ticket, there’s nothing you can do to increase your chance of winning on that ticket, and beyond the chance of winning, there are few rewards available. Still, if we look at hope as providing an emotional boost, that in itself is something of a benefit (and, for a truly depressed person, perhaps the $2 cost of buying a lottery ticket is worth the hope temporary hope that is created).
With writing and other skilled activities, each successive attempt to write may spark some new hope. “If I try this time,” you can say to yourself, “I will get better results than last time.” With practices that depend on skill, this hope will, in the long run, be realized because practice does lead to improved skill.
While you need some hope to make the effort to write, if you invest that effort, there is a good chance that you will build more hope as you build your abilities as a writer, and as you develop new ideas that could be turned into good writing.
The more you practice, the more you build skill, and therefore the more you have reason to hope that your work will provide you some benefit (beyond any benefits you may get from the practice of writing—there are some, but that’s a subject for a separate discussion).
Continuing the Search
Hope is ephemeral; it looks to the future and when the future arrives, whether the hope is realized or not, the hope itself must pass away because it is no longer relevant. If you hope that something will happen by next Sunday, that specific hope will necessary be eliminated next Sunday, whether it is realized or denied. Therefore, it is necessary to keep revising our hopes and looking to a new potentially positive future. A skill-building practice like writing is good for building hopes because each practice session can be driven by the hope of doing something that you did not do in the previous session. Instead of feeling like work is simply a treadmill of drudgery, it is possible to view it as a ramp of hope; each new practice session may be the one in which you write your most brilliant work yet.
Without hope, life is miserable, and without hope it’s almost impossible to make life any better, because it takes some element of hope to act: if you don’t look forward to any benefit from an action, you’re unlikely to take that action. (I don’t mean this is a purely transactional sense: helping another person is a benefit for which one can hope, even without compensation for that help.) If you despair, a practice in which you hope to build skill, and also aspire to greater goals, is one way to build a little hope to fight back against the despair.
I am not an optimist, and I believe that bad outcomes are generally likely. But when it comes to practice, I do believe that disciplined practice offers a reasonable a chance to build reasonable hopes and experience the benefit of hope rather than just suffering despair. Practicing a skill like writing is no guarantee that things will turn out well, but a healthy practice helps build reasonable hopes for positive outcomes.