The Ground of Hope

[The substance of this essay was originally given as The Dr Laurie Brooks Memorial Lecture at St Dominic’s High School, Penrith, NSW, May 4 2005. It was later published in The Australasian Catholic Record.]

In the First Letter of Peter we are urged to have a response to those who ask us about our hope.[1]  It is as well for us, especially in the climate of the times, also to be able to speak coherently of hope as a fundamental human experience.  That is my intention in this essay,

Consider our use of the word in common speech:  “I hope the weather is fine tomorrow” or “I hope this letter finds you well” or “I hope the pathology report is favourable” or “I have great hope for our young people,” and so on.  It seems to me that we are, for the most part, describing something like a positive state of thinking and feeling about the future in this sort of usage.  Hope is seen here as a psychological condition based on expectations of a favourable outcome in the circumstances of our lives.

I am going to speak of the human experience of hope as something more than that.  I will speak of hope as an expression of existence, a manifestation of my very being that emerges when I am more or less at one with what is real in and around me.  The choices I make, therefore, may be for or against hope, in so far as they are for or against what is authentic.

The focus here is not my psychological state, though that is clearly part of the experience of hope.  Hope is even less about favourable outcomes in the circumstances of our lives.  Such favourable outcomes have nothing to do with hope as such.

The following are the key ideas in this reflection on hope:

1. To be human is to be inclined to push the boundaries of life; we call this natural urging, transcendence.

2. The urging of transcendence may manifest itself positively or negatively.  The choice is ours.

3. To the extent that the urge to transcend leads us more deeply into reality, it becomes a central part of a life of hope, whether we realize it or not.

4. To the extent that the urge to transcend leads us into a fictional existence, it becomes a source of despair, whether we realize it or not.

5. Both transcendence and hope focus our lives beyond the material, the finite and the merely useful.

6. Story, with its use of metaphor, symbol and ritual, is an important feature of the life of hope.

7. Finally, a hope-filled life is perfectly congruent with a trouble-filled life and the fact of death.


The word “transcendence” comes from the two Latin words, scandere meaning “to climb” and trans meaning “across.”  It is a good descriptor of human beings, suggesting we are dynamic, never wholly at rest where we are as we are, always striving to go further, seeking more, climbing higher, exploring the unexplored, taking risks, making sacrifices, daring to do this and that.  Obvious external manifestations of transcendence are found in our desires and efforts to know more, to explore outer space, to continually extend our physical possibilities, to invent new machines and gadgets, and so on.  Most of which suggests something marvelous about us, reminding us that life is promise rather than threat.

The news, however, is not all good.  Transcendence is a two edged sword.  This urge to transcend, is also part of such peculiar and destructive human manifestations as imperialism and colonialism, violence and oppression, egocentricity and arrogance, greed and consumerism.  Human existence can also present itself as threat rather than promise.  Aldous Huxley was perhaps more alert to this destructive possibility when he wrote in his essay which forms the epilogue to his book, The Devils of Loudun:

“Without any understanding of man’s deep-seated urge to self-transcend, of his very reluctance to take the hard, ascending way, and his search for some bogus liberation either below or to one side of his personality, we cannot hope to make sense of our own particular period of history or indeed of history in general, of life as it was lived in the past and as it is lived today.  For this reason I propose to discuss some of the more common Grace-substitutes, into which and by means of which men and women have tried to escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves. …. human beings have felt the radical inadequacy of their personal existence, the misery of being their insulated selves and not something else, something wider, something in Wordsworthian phrase, far more deeply interfused.”[2]

For human beings, life is redolent with “the more than.”  Our response to that will have significant bearing on the quality and depth of the life we live.  Life is evocative, it is constant invitation, summons, challenge.  We feel alive when we respond well, we feel dead when we cease, for whatever reason, to transcend.  And the most fulfilling and life-giving transcendence is, in the end, not external or geographical, not about functional and merely useful things – no matter how functional or how useful – nor is it about ego-satisfaction or physical triumphs.  These are in fact metaphors or symptoms of the true transcendence we seek which is internal.  That extraordinary man, Thomas Merton, captured it concisely when he wrote in a letter to friends, not long before he died:

“Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.  Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.  I pray that we may all do so generously.”


In the 9th century BCE, Homer wrote the Odyssey.  This epic poem has become one of the great classics of our tradition.  There we read of the extraordinary struggles of the hero, Odysseus.  After the war is won in Troy, Odysseus’ trials multiply as he endeavours to find his way home to Greece and to his wife, Penelope.  He loses all his friends and eventually finds himself on the island of Ogygia with the beautiful nymph, Calypso.  He lives more or less happily with Calypso for seven years.

Martha Nussbaum, in an essay entitled, “Transcending Humanity,”[3] gives us some helpful insights on this story.  Calypso offers Odysseus an opportunity that is enormously tempting.  Nussbaum writes:

“Stay with me on this island, she says, and you will avoid all the troubles that await you.  And, best of all, living here, ‘in calm possession of this domain,’ you will be ‘beyond the reach of death,’ …”[4]

Odysseus rejects the false transcendence offered by Calypso, saying to her:

“I know that my wise Penelope, when a man looks at her, is far beneath you in form and stature; she is a mortal, you are immortal and unageing.  Yet, notwithstanding, my desire and longing, day by day, is still to reach my own home and to see the day of my return.  And if this or that divinity should shatter my craft on the wine-dark ocean, I will bear it up and keep a bold heart within me.  Often enough before this time have war and wave oppressed and plagued me; let new tribulations join the old.”[5]

Odysseus, we must emphasize, is not rejecting the call of transcendence as such.  He is affirming that the way of authentic transcendence is through life, not around it or away from it.  Authentic transcendence takes us into what is true and good and real.  As the words of Odysseus indicate, this authentic transcendence may in fact run the risk, even the probability, of death.  Still, it is to be chosen over inauthentic transcendence.  Adrian van Kaam writes:

“Whether I am a child or an adult, a simple person or a hero, a prisoner or a free citizen, I am always a potentiality for transcendence in many ways.  If I were to freeze myself into one mold by repression of the aspiration to transcend what I currently am, I would die to authentic living.  The most sordid crime against our humanity is to destroy what we basically are: transcendent selves.”[6]

Nussbaum goes on to offer a subtle but compelling piece of evidence from Homer’s text to show that Odysseus has in fact chosen the path of authentic transcendence.  Nussbaum writes that the life offered by Calypso

“would just not be comprehensible as a life for a human being with human virtues and human heroism.  ….  For where and who, in such a life, would our hero be?  ….  Our preference for Odysseus’ life with Penelope over his life with Calypso actually stems, I think, from this more general uneasiness about the shapelessness of the life Calypso offers: pleasure and kindliness on and on, with no risks, no possibility of sacrifice, no grief, no children.[7]

Nussbaum then goes on to support her analysis by comparing the accounts of lovemaking:

“Odysseus and Calypso ‘withdrew, and in a recess of the arching cavern they took their pleasure in love, and did not leave one another’s side.’  That’s the end of that; the poet can say no more; for they have nothing to talk about, since they have done nothing and nothing has happened to them.  As for the human husband and wife:

‘The two in their room enjoyed the delights of love, then pleased one another with recounting what had befallen each.  The queen told how much she had suffered in these halls, seeing always there the pernicious multitude of suitors who in wooing her had slaughtered so many beasts, fat sheep and oxen, and drawn so much wine from the great jars.  The king told of the harm he had done to others and the misery he had endured himself.  Penelope listened to him enraptured, and sleep did not fall upon her eyelids till he had told his tale to the end.’”[8]

If Odysseus had taken the Calypso option, the story would have simply ended right there.  He took the Penelope option and the story begins and all sorts of possibilities open up.  The former option is for a fictional existence, the latter option is for reality, for life.


The Calypso option is, in fact, an option for despair.  It may be quiet despair, unacknowledged despair, despair masquerading as happiness and even success.  But it remains despair.  It is a life of despair because it is inauthentic, it is built on an illusion.  It does not manifest who or what Odysseus is or what life is.  It is the choice for a fiction that is ego-centred rather than reality-centred.

Is it possible that, embedded in the materialism, individualism and consumerism of our modern Western way of life, we actually have espoused the Calypso option?  What we promise through our billboards, through the images on the sides of buses and buildings, through the magazines and TV shows and news reports that are dominated by celebrities, is a utopian fiction.  It is also a life of despair, therefore.

A paradox is evident here.  Whether we actually feel our fictional existence to be a life of despair, or recognise it as such, is not the point.  Feelings are not necessarily a good guide.  Genuine hope, for example, will give rise to positive feelings about the future but not all positive feelings about the future are based on hope.  It is possible, for example, to feel positive about the future and still, in the depths of our beings, be in despair.  One of the chilling characteristics sometimes observed in people who have made up their minds to commit suicide, is a certain positive attitude to the future.  I would suggest two thoughts in this context.  Firstly, we may come to know the despair hidden in our depths, when we are faced with a crisis and at that point we may open ourselves to genuine hope or simply sink into the despair that has been there all along.  Secondly, I do not believe a whole culture can survive when large numbers of its participants are living lives of despair, no matter how good it all looks on the surface.

The Penelope option is, in fact, an option for hope.  It is riddled with paradox and sometimes fearful unknowns, it is full of risk and the disconcerting fact of death and life forming an inseparable unity.  Human existence itself, honestly and generously embraced, is our best source of hope – our only source of hope.[9]  The hope-filled life is not grounded in wishful fictions or ephemeral satisfactions or even endless satisfactions.  The centre of gravity in the man or woman of hope lies beyond ego.  The hope-filled life is the life marked by authentic transcendence.

Which brings us to an important practical distinction, between hope and optimism.  The more our lives become disconnected from what is real, from being who and what we actually are, the more we become fictional characters, inventions of our own individual or collective egos.  In this fiction, we fall away from hope towards despair, whether we know it or not.  The more we slip into despair, the more we are likely to focus on being optimistic.  Optimism can be invented, pumped up and just as easily dis-invented and deflated.  At its best, optimism is merely a state of mind and feeling, based on the simple estimate that, given the facts to hand, the outcome looks positive.  Optimism is a category of the functional and the useful.  Optimism has its place in a healthy life.  As, indeed, does pessimism.  The healthy person is optimistic when the facts suggest that, pessimistic when the facts suggest the opposite.

But human existence embraces much more than the merely functional.  As Adrian Van Kaam, following Gabriel Marcel, has observed:

“There simply are not fast and easy solutions to the problems of living.  Our existential project is precisely not a list of clever technical directions.  ….  Whereas the first thing to know in a technical crisis is exact information about the instrument concerned, the first thing to know in the problems of life is that we do not know.  Life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved.  Before this mystery we stand in awe and surrender.  We do not impose our petty categories on the mystery of life; we do not force life into our narrow prejudices; we do not complain that life is too vast for us; we know that life escapes our grasp.  We bow in reverence to the mystery of Being; we accept in humility the fact that we cannot understand where life is leading us; we learn the virtue of patience in the school of the adventure of living.  For we are like sailors on a ship of unknown destination on an uncharted sea.  Very gradually we learn the crucial lesson of existence that we do not ask what life has to give to us, but rather respond to what life asks from us.  Then the question is no longer what can I get out of life, but rather what can life get out of me.”[10]

When we begin to examine human existence seriously and openly, we must find categories to name the authentic transcendent possibilities.  Optimism is too weak, far too weak.  Only hope can name that disposition that will keep despair at bay, a hope that remains vital whether we are optimistic or pessimistic, no matter how promising or unpromising the circumstances of our life appear to be in a given instance.  This is a hope grounded in what we are rather than what our circumstances are.  Vaclav Havel writes of this in his normal pithy and enlightened way.  His words are here quoted by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney:

“(Hope is) a state of mind, not a state of the world.  Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it is not essentially dependent upon some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation . . .  It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere between its horizons.  I don’t think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favourable signs in the world.  I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are . . . .  It is not the conviction that some thing will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”[11]

You can be realistically hope-filled in the face of death, you cannot be realistically optimistic.  Hope remains coherent in the presence of failure and disappointment, pleasure and pain, friendship and loneliness, and it stands firm in the face of a threatening future.  Hope is grounded beyond this and that, beyond past, present and future.  Hope recognizes the absoluteness of Being and has confidence in that.


The most practical and useful question you can ask at any moment in any day is simply, “What’s happening?”  Variations on that question include questions like: “What’s happening with me?”  “What’s happening with you?”  “What’s happening between us?”  If we knew how to ask those simple questions, listen to them honestly, hear what reality will say to us through our experiences, and act generously and intelligently on that, we would not only be very wise, we would be very hope-filled.  How many people spend time listening for and facing what is actually going on, with a sincere desire to submit to the truth that emerges?[12]

The way to a life of hope is surprisingly simple and available to each and every one of us.  It is through the ordinary stuff of daily living, the stuff we may find unspectacular, uninteresting and even downright tedious.  Whilst hope can never be grounded in the merely finite and material things of life, those here and now facts of finitude and materiality are the only access points we have to the true ground of hope.  They are the doors through which we must transcend.  One writer puts it well:

“We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potency of being-in-the-flesh.  This does not mean that we should go through it violently, looking for a means to a breakthrough; that would be to try to accomplish everything at one stroke.  The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop.  Rather it contains many shapes and byways and clevernesses and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one.  We waste our time if we try to go around or above or under the definite; we must literally go through it.  And in taking this narrow path directly, we shall be using our remembered experience of things seen and earned in a cumulative way, to create hope in the things that are not yet seen.”[13]

The best way to promote hope in ourselves and our children is to be real.  The promise of a bigger house or a better car, a holiday overseas or more money, smarter video games or advances in medical technology, whiz bang telephony or a multiplication of TV channels, is not the stuff of hope.  In fact, we may eventually come to see that such a way of thinking has the very opposite effect, especially on the young.

The American novelist and essayist, Walker Percy, sounded a note of caution in this regard:

“Scientism, said Kierkegaard, explains everything under the sun except what it is to be man, to live, and to die.  Nor do the manifold delights of consumerism and six hours of TV a day change this state of affairs.  Indeed, it is in the very face of this massive consumption of goods and this diversion by entertainment, either despite it or because of it, that psychiatrists, not priests but psychiatrists, have remarked the ominous increase of depression and suicide – to say nothing of the recourse to drugs.  In a word, the consumer of mass culture is lonely, not only lonely, but spiritually impoverished.”[14]


I will finish with two examples of hope.  The first is taken from a modern novella, the second is taken from the life of a young married man I know.

a. Oscar and the lady in pink[15]

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s story is told through the letters of a little boy, Oscar.  Oscar is dying of cancer.  He writes to God.  Oscar is in hospital where he meets Mamie-Rose, “the oldest of all the ladies who come from the outside to spend time with the children who are sick.”  These are “the ladies in pink.”  “How old are you, Mamie-Rose?” he asks her.  She replies: “Can you remember numbers of thirteen digits, Oscar my little friend?”[16]  Oscar goes on to relate to God in that first letter:

“We were walking around the garden and she stepped in some poop.



“‘And move your butt.  We’re taking a walk, we’re not ambling along like snails.’

“When we sat down on a bench to have a piece of candy I asked: ‘How come you use such bad words?’

“‘Professional habit my little Oscar.  In my job I would have been in deep trouble if I had been too proper.’

“‘And what job was that?’

“‘You won’t believe me …..’

“‘I swear to you that I will.’


“‘I don’t believe you!’

“‘I was a wrestler!  They nicknamed me the Strangler of Languedoc.’”[17]

So the relationship begins to grow.  Mamie-Rose is quite unlike all the other staff – and even his family – because they are playing roles and acting around him.  She is real.  Her outrageous stories, of battling “the Lady butcher of Limousin, the twenty-year-long fight against Diabolica Sinclair, a Dutch woman who had cannon shells instead of breasts, and above all her world cup against Ulla Ulla, known as the Bitch of Büchenwald, who’d never been beaten, not even by Steel Thighs ….,” far from diminishing the sense of what is real, enhance it.  This weird lady in pink knows instinctively that stories are much more truthful renditions of what is real than any scientific data or factual reporting could possibly be.  The relationship grows deeper and deeper.  Oscar, once an alienated and angry little boy, becomes a playful, vital child again as he journeys into his dying.  Stories and story telling are vital links in this chain of hope.  Rollo May writes:

“We forget at our peril that man is a symbol-making creature; and if the symbols (or myths, which are a pattern of symbols) seem arid and dead, they are to be mourned rather than denied.  The bankruptcy of symbols should be seen for what it is, a way station on the path of despair.”[18]

b. A young married man

A friend of man is a young man who works in the finance industry.  About five years ago he was working as a researcher for one of Sydney’s leading stock broking firms.  Over lunch we were talking about careers and how people tend to move on from job to job these days.  I said, “For example, you will not be in that job when you are 40.”  He was 29 years old at the time.  He said, “I will not be in this job next week.”  He went on to explain that he objected to practices in the firm that he thought were very unethical.  This was why he was choosing to move on.

He was, at the time, recently married and beginning a young family.  He had also taken out a substantial mortgage.  He was fully aware of the financial implications of his decision to leave as a matter of principle.  Due to the dual facts that the firm held over bonuses for up to 18 months and that, in the days leading up to his resignation, the firm was the subject of a takeover which increased its value quite a bit, my friend walked away from $460,000.

Under the circumstances, if he had chosen to stay, I would have understood that.  But I would not have been inspired.  Rather I would have been somewhat saddened by the thought that greed and selfishness had won out.  His was a hope-filled decision and action, though it cost him dearly, at least in financial terms.


We conclude with the wisdom of Dag Hammarskjold:

“Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness, toil its desolation.  And so keep alive the incentive to push on further, that pain in the soul which drives us beyond ourselves.  Whither?  That I don’t know.  That I don’t ask to know.”[19]

Those who have grown accustomed to listening to what is happening and submitting to what is real, increasingly experience transcendence as “that pain in the soul which drives us beyond ourselves.”  In that, we find the reasons “to push on further.”  Such is a life that is effectively committed to the path of authentic transcendence, a life enlivened by hope.  Such hope cannot be mistaken for mere optimism.  It can, in fact, thrive together with pessimism.  Hope is more than positive psychological energy, though there is a lot of that associated with it.  It’s source is beyond the person, beyond the moment, beyond the material circumstances.  Hope-filled people know in their bones that their story is part of a bigger human story.  Their story, in fact, is part of a cosmic story that is, in turn, part of an eternal story.  There is our reason for hope, there is no other.

[1] See 1Peter 3:15.

[2] Aldous Huxley, “Appendix” from The Devils of Loudun, Penguin Books, 1971, 313f.

[3] Martha C Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1990, 365-391.

[4] Op cit, 365.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adrian van Kaam, The Transcendent Self, Dimension Books, 1979, 167f.

[7] Nussbaum, op cit, 366.

[8] Op cit, 367.

[9] As a Christian I believe the Incarnation is the action of God in human existence

[10] Adrian van Kaam, Religion and Personality, Image Books, 1964, 24. 

[11] Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace, Faber and Faber, 1990, 181.  Cited by Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, 4. 

[12] There is a very practical little book that many find helpful in promoting the sort of attentiveness described here – Eugene Gendlin, Focusing, Bantam Books, 1983.

[13] William Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, University of Notre Dame, 1975, 7.

[14]Walker Percy, “Culture, the Church and Evangelization” in Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, ed, Patrick Samway, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991, 302.)

[15] Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, “Oscar and the Lady in Pink,” in Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, translated by Marjolijn de Jager, Other Press, 2003, 53-117.

[16] Op cit, 59.

[17] Op cit, 60-61.

[18] Rollo May, Power and Innocence,Fontana Books, 1976, 70.

[19] Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, translated from the Swedish by Leif Sjöberg & W H Auden, Alfred A Knopf, 1964, 55.