25 March 2009

Hope, Fear and Attachment

I decided this was too long to post as a comment here, but it is a continuation of thoughts begun at Café Press. I actually started on this several days ago, and only now made it back to edit what I had written. Essentially it began as a discussion of the relationship between hope and fear, and that led into the question of whether hope itself had any intrinsic value.

What I realize now is that there are at least two ways that the word "hope" is used. One is in reference to a specific event. "I hope that X will happen." The other is very vague and ill-defined, but it generally has no object. "I have hope." I think it might be described as a positive expectation directed toward the future, but without any further specifics attached. A sort of "trust" in the future. Unlike hope's counterpart, fear, there doesn't seem to be a more specific word for "generalized undirected hope," whereas we have "anxiety" for "generalized undirected fear."

Primarily I'm criticizing the first kind of hope, the "hope that X will happen." That kind of hope is automatically associated with the "fear that X will not happen." They can be distinguished, but they cannot be separated. They are at opposite ends of an emotional teeter-totter. As Heidegger noted, however, hope and fear can only be felt for uncertain events. As soon as something is certain, there is no more room for hope or fear. We know whether or not X has happened. So long as X remains uncertain, it is possible to have hopes or fears associated with it. My opinion is, why bother?

Seriously. What is the point of hoping you can keep your job? If you want to keep your job, do it well, don't annoy any of the people who make the decisions, etc. etc. What is the point of fearing that you'll be in a car accident on the way to work? Wear your seatbelt, pay attention, don't drive while impaired, etc. etc., and you minimize your chances. Hope and fear just get in the way of doing what is necessary. In the worst cases, they are paralyzing. Accept the possibility of losing your job, getting in a car wreck, or what-have-you, take appropriate action, and move on. What do fear and hope add to this?

Of course, fear and hope will sometimes arise of themselves in relation to a situation. That's fine. That's what emotions do. The problems come when people become attached to the hope or the fear. That's when it can escalate and, eventually, result in paralysis. The stronger forms of hope are almost like a drug, so much so that the intermittent bouts of fear almost seem worth it if we can experience the high of that hope once more. But this can only occur if we do not let go of that hope and that fear. Accept that X might or might not happen, and act to increase the chances of whichever outcome you most favor. Hope is nothing more than attachment to a specific, uncertain outcome, and it is more often harmful than helpful.

The only exception I can see is in a situation that is so miserable, so devoid of any chance of a positive outcome, that hope for something better is the only thing that might keep a person from giving up. In that case, and that case alone, the manic-side of hope can be useful, but it will be balanced by a similarly frantic fear.

So, what about that other kind of hope? The kind which has no particular object? I'm going to call it "positive expectation" just to distinguish it from the other form of hope. It might be expressed in the sentiment, "Things will work out for the best." Or maybe, "The future will be better than the past." Used in the mildest sense, as a means of coping with unfortunate events, this has its place. But becoming too attached even to this form of hope can cause problems. Things don't always work out for the best; the future is often worse than the past. So long as this is recognized, allowing positive expectation to arise is less likely to cause problems than is the more particular form of hope. However, it has as its counterpart anxiety. The more strongly we become attached to positive expectation, the worse the anxiety will be when it arises. I would still advocate a simple acceptance of possibilities. It's possible to prefer one possibility over another, and act accordingly, without becoming attached to that possibility.

Non-attachment is not indifference. It is simply recognizing that we cannot control everything. It is acknowledging our limits even as we seek to find a way beyond them. A way will be found, or it won't. X will happen or it will not. Non-attachment is, most simply, recognizing these possibilities. It means starting from where you actually are and doing what you actually can. Hope blinds us to the possibility of failure while fear blinds us to the possibility of success. They see-saw back and forth, and up and down, without bringing anything of use to the table. The real result will most likely be somewhere in between the most-hoped-for and the most-feared outcomes.

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