“Hope is Just a Little Bit Better Than Despair”

On Sunday my sister and I, along with a few others, participated in a burial-at-sea service for my grandmother and my great aunt, who had lived together for decades, and who both died during 2010. The weather was perfect: sunny and in the 70’s, very little wind (which made for calm waters).

My grandmother was raised a Catholic (or at least went to Catholic school), but later became an active member of the Church of Religious Science, which adheres to a doctrine known as “Science of Mind.” As best as I can understand from my limited exposure to it, Science of Mind is a mystical doctrine that can be fairly described as Christianity combined with a belief in the power of certain forms of meditation and positive thinking. The Christianity part seems to be quite watered-down. For example, the doctrine’s adherents don’t necessarily commit to the idea that Jesus was a Savior. Rather, he was just a really great guy whose behavior should be emulated.

There definitely is a core of mysticism in the doctrine, however. It might be loosely described as the “Benevolent Universe Premise” on steroids. Objectivists who understand the Benevolent Universe Premise do not believe that there is some mystic spirit in the universe who smiles down upon us and assists us in achieving our ends. We believe that the universe is neutral, open to us achieving our values so long as we use our faculty of reason appropriately and conform to the facts of reality. Adherents to the Science of Mind, by contrast, do believe that there is some sort of positive force in the universe that will help them.

As I was growing up, my grandmother peppered our conversations with various sayings that she had learned as part of her Church. If you had a cold, for example, you should “Refuse to have it!” She had magnets that she would put in her car that announced to the passengers within that God was watching over and safeguarding the vehicle. She would say cheery affirmations like, “Every day in every way, things are getting better and better.” And she loved to recite a modified version of last few lines of this poem about procrastination, which I found on p. 476 of the 1908 edition of Notes and Queries:

Lose this day loitering, ’twill be the same story
To-morrow, and the next more dilatory;
True indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost, lamenting over days.
Are you in earnest? Seize the very minute:
What you can do, or think you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Only begin it, and the mind grows heated:
Begin it, and the work will be completed.

It is good that I Googled “begin it and the mind grows heated” in order to find this poem, because my grandmother always recited the last line as “Begin it and the task is completed.” Perhaps she always said it that way because, in her church, they believed you should speak as if the thing you want to come to pass has already occurred. (E.g., “I used to procrastinate, but now I take pride in always tackling my most onerous tasks right away!” Yeah, sure. Not quite there yet!)

One of my grandmother’s sayings has stuck with me and has affected my thinking more than any of the others. Unfortunately I cannot remember the first occasion on which she said it to me. I must have said something on the order of, “I hope X occurs,” where X could have been any one of a variety of things I wanted to have happen in my life over the years. The saying is the title of this blog post, “Hope is Just a Little Bit Better Than Despair.” Despite our differences in beliefs, my grandmother and I both interpreted the saying’s meaning to be essentially the same: Hope and despair are nothing more than emotions. Emotions alone are impotent, so the only thing that makes hope any better than despair is that hope is a positive emotion. Big deal. If you want to actually change something about your life, or about the world, certainly despair alone will get you nowhere. But neither will hope, if it is not accompanied by some sort of appropriate action. So, while my grandmother apparently believed that some spirit in the universe would assist one in achieving his goals, she did not believe that one could just sit back and hope for things to be different, and that, magically, they would be. And it is because I don’t believe that the universe will even assist me, that this saying has really stuck with me over the years. Now, every time I catch myself saying (or wanting to say), “I hope that X,” I stop myself and ask why I am using that word. Do I believe the circumstance at issue is something that I can truly do nothing about? If so, is that belief correct? If it is not, am I trying to avoid doing anything about the particular circumstance?

Try thinking about this next time you use the word “hope,” and see if you find it helpful.

P.S. I hope that, given what I’ve written above, I do not have to elaborate on how utterly intellectually bankrupt it is to conduct an entire political campaign appealing to Americans’ “Hope.” (Or, for that matter, to title a book so as to describe “Hope” as “Audac[ious]”.) It seems that Obama could have learned a lot from my grandmother (and my great aunt)!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to ““Hope is Just a Little Bit Better Than Despair”

  1. Heather

    Thank you for sharing these personal memories of your family. As a mom I especially relish the opportunity to develop my understanding of how the thinking of people I admire was shaped by personal interactions with family.

  2. Oh Yes! What is particularly scary is that a lot of businesses are run by leaders who run them on an explicit “positive thinking will make it happen” worldview. Talk about the primacy of conciosness!! At the same time, I have relatives who are so filled with despair that they can’t move. Their answer is to make their despair metaphysical rather than man-made with the phrase “it is what it is” and the hidden phrase “And there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it.”

  3. Pingback: This week’s “Don’t Let It Go…Unheard,” SATURDAY night, 11 p.m. ET (8 p.m. PT) | Don't Let It Go

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