Have you noticed that it is fashionable these days to be hopeless?
“Our days are numbered,” declares the website of ecologist Guy McPherson, who bludgeons audiences with depressing climate change data. “Passionately pursue a life of excellence.” While you can.
“It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming”—this from the Dark Mountain Manifesto penned by writers, artists, and thinkers who believe we are in for a worldwide crash and had better face up to it.
Psychologist James Hillman takes hope for the problem masquerading as the solution. In Suicide and the Soul he writes about the moment when the patient feels no hope of improvement: “Upon this moment of truth the whole work depends, because this is the dying away from false life and wrong hopes out of which the complaint has come” (88-89). Hillman’s advice: stop resisting and descend into the Underworld with no hope of emergence.
During six years of leading group therapy for men out of jail and prison and nine years of counseling people in dire straits, I saw many for whom the Underworld was not only an inner state, but the realm where they lived. They had no farther to descend except death, and many had brushed it or lost others to it.
Very few of us can live without hope. For most, the loss of hope means loss of enthusiasm for moving forward or facing adversity. For the vulnerable, hopelessness can be a catastrophe. No leader, mentor, or public figure espousing only a doctrine of despair has any chance of mobilizing constructive effort on a large scale.
Yet again and again throughout his work, James Hillman marks down hope as illusory, unnecessary, and self-deceptive. Let us focus on him because his case against hope is, by and large, the same one everybody else makes, albeit in psychological dress. This case has enormous implications for contemporary leadership.
“Hope takes us away from where we are,” Hillman insists in Kevan Jenson’s Surfing LA. Hope prevents encountering the fullness of despair (Suicide and the Soul 89). Hope is a “fundamental deceit” (153). Engaging with dream and symptom requires abandoning the hope in daylife expectations and demands (The Dream and the Underworld 43). Hope cycling with despair subverts the depression of being fully in soul (Re-Visioning Psychology 99). “The vitality of a culture depends less on its hopes and its history than on its capacity to entertain willingly the divine and daimonic force of ideas” (Kinds of Power 23). The analytical focus is on the present without any escape into future hopes (A Blue Fire 159). In the historical example of Jews attacked by Hitler, “The dark eye that can see evil had been blinded by bright hopes in human progress and faith in goodwill and peace” (The Soul’s Code 239).
Easy to find examples of what Hillman means. On the eve of the 2016 U.S. national election, Huffington Post predicted a 98% probability that Hilary Clinton would win. We “hope” that experts will solve global warming; that smart leaders will save us from crooked government; that green technologies will magically supersede dirty ones; that wrong will fail and right prevail.
But notice how actual agents of change use that word “hope.” For them, hope is not denial or passivity, but inspiration and drive.
“Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless,” observes activist Rebecca Solnit, “that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win” (xi). According to William Lynch, who recovered from a breakdown, “Hope is indeed an arduous search for a future good of some kind that is realistically possible but not yet visible” (23). Political psychoanalyst Erich Fromm anticipated an entire “revolution of hope,” stating: “Hope is a decisive element in any attempt to bring about social change in the direction of greater aliveness, awareness, and reason” (19). Ernst Bloch penned a trilogy on how hope can dismantle oppressive ideologies. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the finest and bravest leaders the U.S. ever produced, said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope” (584).
Jung did not mention hope much, but when he did he emphasized its therapeutic power: as a quality mobilized by the positive transference (Freud and Psychoanalysis 286), as a transrational gift of grace (Psychology and Religion 331), as beneficial when older patients imagine life after death (Alchemical Studies 46). The hope for a fuller, richer, more conscious and more socially aware life than that of the psychologically apathetic individual is implicit throughout Jung’s work.
In myth, fairy tale, folk tale, and legend, the protagonist who loses hope gets nowhere. How many stories come to mind in which a key character surrenders to despair, gives up all effort to improve things, and wins through anyway?
What then is hope? Passivity, or passion? Denial, or defiance?
Claiming that theorists bash hope while activists praise it oversimplifies. Listening closer, we hear activists, community leaders, and political realists describing two kinds of hope: false and genuine.
Fromm clarifies that what looks like hope can mask the resignation of an underlying hopelessness. He cites reckless adventurism and worship of progress as examples of alienated hope: what smiles on the surface contradicts what hides in the depths. Thus, the psychological distinction between false hope and true, conscious hopefulness and unconscious despair.
Hope is paradoxical. It is neither passive waiting nor is it unrealistic forcing of circumstances that cannot occur. It is like the crouched tiger, which will jump only when the moment for jumping has come. Neither tired reformism nor pseudo-radical adventurism is an expression of hope. To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime. (22)
For Fromm, authentic hope is not a passive verb waiting around, but an active one dwelling in anticipation. The tree “hopes” for the sunlight by twisting its trunk upward; the infant struggles to walk in the hope of striding forth; the prisoner hopes and strives to be free, the hungry to eat. Rising in the morning is an act of hope.
Those who speak and write about authentic hope insist on its realism. Referring to writer Maria Popova and Black Lives Matters founder Patrisse Cullors, Solnit emphasizes that hope is not about denying realities, but about remembering what can be accomplished, and has been:
It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act… When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. (xii)
Lynch links the life of hope to “an imagination that, in the language of Martin Buber, imagines the real.” Hope refuses to stop imagining or to be limited by what’s visible. It remains open to the unseen, to what has yet to appear. Hope is an interior sense that help is available outside of us. In depth terms: beyond the ego’s heroic pretensions.
Hope comes close to being the very heart and center of a human being… It is his most inward possession, and is rightly thought of, according to the Pandora story, as still there when everything else has gone. (1)
Speaking of Pandora, what can her story tell us about hope?
Pandora, or “All Gifts” because of what the gods gave her to seduce proud Prometheus, married his brother Epimetheus instead. When she opened her jar, death, illness, and other evils so-called entered the world, leaving Hope still contained. Versions of this story have been retold by Sappho, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plotinus, Aesop, Pindar, Ovid, Nonnus, Aquinas, Goethe, Hawthorne, M.L. West, Jane Harrison, Henry James, and Gail Thomas. “And hope is an evil,” Hillman exclaims when relating this myth (Jenson, 2005), agreeing with Nietzsche’s read. “I fight hope at every opportunity.”
That was the view of Hesiod, who did not think much of Pandora or of women in general. Later tellings see it differently. Plotinus considered the tale an allegory of how Soul came into the world (How Philosophers Saved Myths ). Fulgentius wrote that Pandora’s name means “all-giver” because “the soul is the greatest gift of all” (Pandora’s Box 9). In medieval art, Hope is often enthroned, a ship on her head, a bird cage at her feet, and a sickle and beehive in her hands. (Colony Collapse Disorder: have the bees lost the hope of returning to the hive?) In Andrea Alciato’s In simulacrum Spei woodcut, Hope holds the broken weapons of death while standing near Cupid and Bonus Eventus, with Nemesis warning not to hope for what is forbidden. In a later edition of the accompanying poem, Hope is asked why she sits “lazily” in the corner of a vat and answers, “I alone stayed at home while all the evils fluttered about everywhere” (28). Theognis of Megara wrote that “Hope is the only god remaining among mankind; the others have left and gone to Olympus” (Elegy and Iambus).
Besides, did not those vaunted evils released by Pandora introduce the mortality that makes us human? Does not slamming the lid on the daughter of Night twist her into false hope as she pounds frantically on the repression barrier? Would not a consistent archetypal psychology welcome Hope, called Elpis by the Greeks and Spes by the Romans, instead of disparaging this daimona or goddess? The Romans built her a temple near those of fervent Pietas, liminal Janus, and relational Juno.
The stories know better than our despair does. In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Mary’s hopeful encouragement is all that keeps the surviving disciples from running away (Gnosis.org). In the Grimms’ tale “The Devil and His Grandmother,” the soldier who does not give up in hopelessness makes the descent to the Devil’s own cellar to hear the great secret that liberates him and his comrades. The old woman down there likes his cheerful manner (Grimms). The Yellow Emperor receives a blueprint for his magical kingdom from a dream because he hopes he can govern more humanely (Wong 12). In Japanese folklore, Peach Boy never loses his optimism.
What makes hopelessness so attractive?
At first blush it would not seem to be. Here is Fromm again:
Look at the incapacity to plan seriously for overcoming the ever-increasing poisonousness of the city’s water and air and the predictable famine in the poor countries, not to speak of the inability to get rid of the daily threat to the lives and plans of all of us—the thermonuclear weapon. Whatever we say or think about hope, our inability to act or plan for life betrays our hopelessness. (34)
As a defense, however, the gains of hopelessness include passive aggression, warding off further disappointment, shirking self-improvement… According to Solnit, some activists are afraid to acknowledge a victory because people might give up the struggle. If things are hopeless, we have no responsibility for trying to change them.
As the Sybil informs Aeneas, it is easier to enter the Underworld than leave it (Aeneid). Holding hope as only an evil is an Underworld bias. And the Underworld can fascinate (Chalquist). Ask Theseus; ask Persephone; ask the professional cynic. Down there, a Luciferian lack of nuance holds sway. One can grow so familiar with the Underworld that leaving behind its numbing coldness, twisted deformities, and psychopathologies becomes unimaginable. Better the devil you know.
Our planetary addiction to extractive energy has turned much of Earth’s Upperworld into an Underworld. The depths we fear to probe are all around us now. Shall we lounge among dark ruins, or can we hear the wingbeats of better possibilities?
If false hope denies the darkness, hopelessness thickens it. Neither offers an alternative to ecocide. False hope puts its eggs into the precarious basket of big funding and mass movements; hopelessness cuts off the handles. Realistic hope offers the knowledge that we are better than all this; that we and not our politicians are the only source of change that remains; that imaginative fantasy paints innovative possibilities to pursue; that heaven can live one day on Earth, even as Earth floats in the heavens.
In indigenous and ecological thought, Underworld means underground, where networks of mycelium link to manage entire ecosystems. Solnit compares these invisible networks to those woven by humans energized by hope:
Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork—or underground work—often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights. (xv)
“Is it a singular frivolity or a blissful sense of confidence,” Thomas Mann asked Karl Kerényi in 1947, “that allows us still to create works? For whom? For what future? And yet a work though it be one of despair, must in its essence always be grounded in optimism, in a faith in life—and it is a strange thing about despair: it already carries in itself the transcendence to hope” (1975).
Ever since that jar opened it has been easier to know what we oppose than what we are for. But if we unseal Pandora’s jar again, perhaps Elpis can emerge to enlarge our view beyond what is broken, dismal, and absurd to reveal the bright vistas of what we struggle toward.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. MIT Press, 1995. 3 vols.
Brisson, Luc. How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Chalquist, Craig. “Apocalypticism: The Lure of the Abyss.” Huffington Post, January 24, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-chalquist-phd/apocalypticism-the-lure-o_b_6205938.html.
Dark Mountain Project Manifesto. Retrieved on July 10, 2017 from http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/.
Edmonds, J.M., editor. Elegy and iambus, vol. 1. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0479%3Avolume%3D1%3Atext%3D11%3Asection%3D2. Accessed July 8, 2017.
Fromm, Erich. The Rrevolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology. Lantern Books, 2010.
Gnosis.org. “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” Retrieved on July 10, 2017 http://gnosis.org/library/marygosp.htm.
Grimm, Jacob, and Grimm, Wilhelm. “The Devil and His Grandmother,” 1812. Retrieved on July 10, 2017 from http://pinkmonkey.com/dl/library1/story020.pdf.
Hillman, James. A Blue Fire. HarperPerennial, 1997.
Hillman, James. Suicide and the Soul. Spring Publications, 1976.
Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. Harper & Row, 1979.
Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. HarperPerennial, 1992.
Hillman, James. Kinds of Power. Doubleday, 1997.
Hillman, James. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Warner Books, 1996.
Jenson, Kevan, dir. Surfing LA. Visualize This, 1982. Film.
Jung, Carl. Alchemical Studies. Edited by Gerhard Adler and translated by R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Vol. 13. Princeton University Press, 1968.
Jung, Carl. Freud and Psychoanalysis. Edited by Gerhard Adler and translated by R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Vol. 4. Princeton University Press, 1961.
Jung, Carl. Psychology and Religion: East and West. Edited by Herbert Read and Gerhard Adler and translated by R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 11. Princeton University Press, 1975.
Kerényi, Kerényi, and Mann, Thomas. Mythology and Humanism: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Karl Kerényi. Translated by Alexander Gelley. Cornell University Press, 1975.
King, Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches and Writings of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by James Washington. HarperOne, 2003.
Lynch, William. (1974). Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless. University of Notre Dame Press, 1974.
McPherson, Guy. “Nature Bats Last.” Retrieved on July 10, 2017 from https://guymcpherson.com/about/.
Panofsky, Dora, and Panofsky, Erwin. Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythological Symbol. Harper & Row, 1965.
Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Haymarket Books, 2016.
Virgil, Publius. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Vintage, 1990.
Wong, Eva. Lieh-tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living. Shambhala, 2001.
See also “Enchantivism: Transmutation through Inspiration.”