Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hope in the New Year

Hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Those are memorable words of Václav Havel, who died last month.
Havel also contends that hope is “a state of mind, not a state of the world. . . . It is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”
(The above quotations are from Havel’s book Disturbing the Peace, 1990, and also found on page 82 of “Orientation of the Heart,” a chapter of excerpts from Havel’s book in Paul Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, 2004.)
 Václav Havel (1936-2011)
Havel, born in Prague in 1936, was a playwright, poet, and politician. He was the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). He was also nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1977, Havel co-founded an organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in the face of Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Two years later, his human rights activism earned him a four-year sentence to a labor camp for “subversion.” Undeterred, he was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution, as the peaceful uprising in 1989 that overthrew the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was called.
It was hope that kept Havel going while he was in labor camp. That was also true for Nelson Mandela during the 27 years (!) he was in prison. After he was released and elected president of South Africa, Mandela said in his inaugural address in 1994, “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people.”
These two political leaders both embraced hope and inspired hope—far different from Kim Jong-Il, the supreme leader of North Korea from 1994 until his death last month, on the day before Havel died.
Havel, Mandela, and Kim were all in power for several years at the same time—but what a difference in those three men! Perhaps it was hope, and the lack of it, that was the primary difference.
Havel emphasized that hope “is definitely not the same thing as optimism.” That is something I first heard stressed by German theologian Jürgen Moltmann back in the 1960s and have accepted as true.
Optimism is sometimes “Pollyannaish,” out of touch with reality. Thus, optimism can easily end up in disappointment, discouragement, and even disillusionment. But, as Havel says, hope is an “orientation of the heart.” Consequently, hope keeps us cheerful in spite of adversity, forward-looking in spite of setbacks, and positively active in spite of discouragements.
So in this new year, one that will likely be filled with many challenges, both personal and collective, I pray that we all may be able to nurture hope as the orientation of our hearts and to act with the vitality that hope produces.


  1. A very positive place to begin a new year and a new life. It has long been my contention that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is HOPE! We cannot sustain without it.

  2. Hope has found a champion, so let me speak for optimism. Optimism is a paradox, profitably out of touch with reality, or so the psychologists tell us. Without optimism, hope may find a noble defeat where it could have earned an unexpected victory. As it happens, the human race is well served by many failed optimists, because a few change the world we live in.

    In Silicon Valley venture capitalists spend serious dollars funding many startups, knowing most will fail. They especially value the creative entrepreneurs who have failed a time or two before, re-entering the fray a little more experienced than their competitors.

    My daughter has become a fan of the recent re-incarnation of the TV show Doctor Who. (Various versions have been made for half a century.) This Christmas season she has fired up the DVD player to show us some of her favorites. The Doctor, as he is called, lives in a wild science fiction universe, where his hope is a set of deep principles underlying the wildly optimistic adventure of each episode, where he confronts some unexpected peril in the cosmos. Sometimes his best efforts still end in tragedy, and then the deep hope shines through. Other times, he finds amazing solutions that delight all of good cheer.

    Hope and optimism fit together much like strategy and tactics.

  3. Our souls must be in sync, Leroy, because my column this week also treated Havel and Mandela, although briefly, and it was also about hope, among other things.

    I must confess, I don't understand Havel's quotation, with which you begin this post. Or if I understand it, I would probably quibble. :)

    I suspect it's humanly impossible to live without hope. And I suspect that hope does require some modicum, however tiny, of a possibility that somehow, someway, what one does will mean something of value to someone, somewhere.

  4. Anton, I appreciate your honesty regarding Havel's oft-quoted words. All widely quoted statements need to be analyzed and not just accepted.

    But I see the same thing being true for faith, hope, and love. They are "virtues" to be followed and put into practice whether they produce any desirable, or detectable, results or not.

    I linked hope to love, for as is pointed out by some, the love manifested by those who engage in nonviolent resistance doesn't always "work." But nevertheless, it should be practiced anyway. That is John Howard Yoder's position about pacifism, and I think he is right.

    Faith, hope, and love are all orientations of the heart that should, I think, be characteristic of those who follow Jesus.