The fire that never burns out.
Mostly Useful / № 11
I am a student of practical philosophy. I do not have an appetite for esoteric epistemological discussions, nor do I have an interest in the eloquent theories of “high philosophy,” as Ryan Holiday describes it. Indeed, that is precisely why I am a reader of Holiday’s, as well as an ardent follower of Stoicism. Stoicism offers copious amounts of practical philosophy for intellectually curious “non-intellectuals,” such as myself. My favorite of the Stoics is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I quoted him as the inspiration for my post, Kindness is Invincible. When I learned that his book, Meditations (which you must study!), was not intended to be a book but was actually his private journal, I was both surprised and inspired. As I read his work, I realized that when he says “you,” Marcus is actually talking to himself, not his audience. I realized that he was having a conversation and thinking through a topic or challenge by speaking to himself.
I reflected on my own writing style and I began to notice that I, too, address my writing to “you,” even though I am speaking to myself. Aurelius’ style inspired me to pursue my open journaling style, where I share my thinking publicly. So, when you read what I write, I am not telling you what to do; I am trying to work something out in myself. I have found that while my style can be abrasive (especially if you feel that you are being told what to do by someone who has no authority in your life and whom you did not ask advice from), it is still an effective method for catalyzing an inner dialogue. This is why I invite you, my reader, along with me as I think through these topics.
As such, this is a joint exercise in open thinking. I do this because I hope that this dialogue will spark a conversation within your soul as it has in mine. Though I would never compare myself to Aurelius, these writings are my meditations. This is what meditation means to me: to reflect deeply about a topic, to wrestle with what I think instead of assuming I have mastered it. This is the Ouroboros at work, yet again. We can believe we have grasped an idea only to revisit and find we had much more to learn, devouring our former thoughts and discovering new facets, new perspectives.
So it is with hope. I thought I had a firm grasp, only to discover these past few weeks as I sat down to write, I know less than I previously assumed. I found that I had fewer words than I expected. I have learned to attend to such indicators because they compel me to go deeper.
It is not that I know nothing. Rather, I do not yet know what I could know.
Consequently, the thoughts that follow are incomplete. Forgive me if I ramble. I attempt to avoid it, but it is inevitable. Forgive me if I seem contradictory or unsure. I am learning out loud, and I am discovering this topic is more complicated than I imagined. Perhaps that is why there seems to be so little hope for so many people. It is a complex, challenging concept. Where does hope come from? How do you keep it? How can it be lost? Why do some people seem to have an abundance while others tragically go without? I have some answers, and I will share them with you. But, I also have more questions than ever.
Psalm 61:2 - King James Version
From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee,
when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
These are lyrics written by the ancient Hebrew king, David. Whether or not you are religious, I ask you to reflect on the wisdom of these poetic words. David (and his contemporaries who also contributed to the book of Hebrew poems and songs known as the Psalms) understood something deeply, profoundly psychological. From what I can tell, these words of David are the birthplace of all hope. David understood something about his humanity1 and his writings were his way of articulating this wisdom. He could see that the human situation, his situation, is dire, tragic, and full of suffering. This was undeniably truer in ancient times, where sickness, war, famine, and harsh living kept life expectancy incredibly low. Death was never far away. We have never been good at accepting the reality that one day we will die. Indeed, it is our fear of death that is at the root of our anxieties as well as our innovations. Why else would we invent medicine if we were not trying to live a few years longer? Why else would we create myths of various forms, all featuring the promise of an afterlife? We want to avoid death for as long as possible, but we also want to know that we are secure when our time has come.
David had learned that if he wanted to overcome the darkness that threatened him, he would need to lift his eyes. He would need something higher than himself. That something (or, Someone, in David’s case) would be an authority that he would answer to. His God was a Rock, a refuge, and a tower of strength. David could look up to this greater power, orient his life according to this power, answer to this power, and in turn, he would find refuge. And so it is today. If you go to therapy and present your problems, your therapist (if he is any good) will not give you advice. They will help you take a step back and look at your situation from a different perspective. It is often by the change in perspective that you begin to see your problems differently, perhaps more manageably. Usually, you will solve your own problem. This kind of problem-solving is not limited to therapy. I used this approach with my employees who were overwhelmed by their workload. I would ask them to bring me their whole task list, and we would talk through it top to bottom. Rarely would I give input or advice. I would do almost nothing, and yet somehow, the employee would always leave feeling relieved, empowered, and energized. I am no genius. I would simply listen as they solved their own challenges by processing their workload aloud. When they would articulate their challenges, suddenly they became more manageable. Just like that. They solved their own problems simply by taking a higher view of the situation than previously attempted.
Perspective is an essential precursor to hope.
For example, without perspective, you must depend on your own view of things and extract hope thusly. That is to say, you must depend on yourself, your opinions, your evaluation of the situation at hand. However, if you are entirely dependent on yourself, then you must be an infallibly reliable person. Otherwise, you will make a mistake or a compromise, disappoint yourself, and despair because you are both the disappointer and the disappointed. People are undependable. It is our nature. So, you cannot look to yourself for hope, nor can you look to others. You need a rock that is higher than you.
Where can we look to, then? What should your “rock” be? I confess I am not entirely sure of the answer. Personally, I derive a majority of my hope from my faith. I am a person of deep belief and conviction, and having authority over me is essential to ordering my life. I am painfully aware of my own unreliability, so I choose to submit my life as David did. I know that not everyone will find hope in a spiritual faith. I also know that those without faith are not also without hope. I have found that faith, belief, or religion, whatever you like to call it, is not enough. Many people profess faith and are lost within it. Many people have no religion at all and are reasonably hopeful. So it cannot only be a matter of how spiritual a person is. Accordingly, this is what I have come to believe:
Hope is kindled in the pursuit of anything more significant than myself.
To have purpose, something (not someone; people must never be the source of your hope because of the complexities and unreliability of human nature) other than myself to devote my time and energy to, gives me perspective and a calling that is “higher” than I myself. I need something to live both for and up to. I require a standard that calls me higher. People require purpose. We must have something to pursue. We need an objective, something to work on. If you are listless, I assume you are also hopeless.
Our purpose does not need to be grand or esoteric. It can (and should) be very simple. For me, I want to live my life in such a way as to encourage, edify and inspire everyone I possibly can. It is not easy, but it is simple. I am terrible at it, but it gives me a standard to live up to. I try my best to bring light wherever I go. I do this in accordance with my faith and this directs nearly everything in my life and gives me a way to plot my course, especially when it is not immediately obvious what the right course of action might be. I live this out imperfectly, sometimes bringing darkness instead of light, failing, and missing my mark. Even so, I never lose sight of my true north. It does not mean I am never hopeless. I fight that battle quite often. But so far, it has kept my fire from completely dying out.
And that is how I imagine hope: as a fire. Like a fire, we must tend to our hope. It must be kept alive. If our fire goes out, it is because we have neglected it. We have allowed it to happen. I do not think we can manufacture hope. However, I do believe that each of us must keep our own fires burning. I no longer think we “lose” hope. More often, I think we give it up. And it is no surprise! Even though we have found ways to prolong life and increase comfort, it does not change the bleak reality of being human. Wiser and more clever people than me have wrestled with this reality for millennia. There are no simple answers; that much is clear. Indeed, blind optimism is as much a tragedy as complete hopelessness. Irrational hope or utter despair are merely different forms of blindness with the same bitter result. Think about that! That one really caught me for a while. I’m not sure I’ve fully understand that dichotomy, however it has certainly catalyzed my thinking. This is another reality I’ve discovered about hope:
Any situation that is absent of hope is under the influence of a lie.
Because hope must be nurtured and kept ablaze, if the fire goes out, it is not because it is a natural occurrence. The fire goes out because it was allowed to. I do not mean to blame those who have seen their hope dissipate. There are times when hope can be stolen away, and it causes so much pain and despair that it is impossible to see how it might ever be restored. But even in that situation, a lie is at work, deliberately destroying our fragile flames. When we believe these lies, they extinguish our hope with terrible ferocity. Suppose you face a demon (inner or actual), one who uses your own voice against you. He knows your deepest fears and dangles them in front of you. You hear the words, they mimic your own voice. You begin to believe them and are paralyzed. You are faced with your own lack of purpose, and fear begins to take root.
Or, perhaps not?
Hope can always be found. Hope can always be fanned back into a flame. If you have tended to your fire, your flame will not even flicker in the face of such a demon. Light is always greater than darkness. A blazing fire within your soul is under no threat from fear. You will, quite irrationally yet unwaveringly, face your fears and look them full in the face. Though it does not make logical sense, you will stand firm. and your fire will keep blazing. Hope, by its very nature, is irrational! Rationally speaking, of course, it is foolish to believe in and look for what does not yet exist, what has never been seen except in your heart’s imaginings. If you say to those voices that you have hope, you will hear mocking laughter in reply. “What evidence do you have?” Though you lack evidence, you do not lack hope. Hope does not require proof. It requires purpose. The purpose is how we imagine a brighter, more beautiful tomorrow.
In some sense, a lack of hope is a failure of imagination.
We must imagine reality before we can direct ourselves towards it. We must imagine and envision. That is why we need a purpose greater than ourselves: it gives us something unseen that we are attempting to build. We are creating and aiming for a future we have only seen in the secret of our heart. That is why our purpose does not need to be overly dramatic. It is the highest aim to bring goodness into the world by our contribution. If you can create art, are you not bringing beauty where there was a void before? Hopelessness sets in when we have believed the lie that the future will be no better than the present. And if life is mostly tragedy and suffering, is this not a correct view of things? Is that not the most rational view? With such a mindset, it is easy to see why someone might become nihilistic. Such rationality has a very bitter conclusion. But we must follow these threads, even if they lead to dark places. We are not required to stay in such darkness, but we certainly cannot dismiss its existence. That is willful ignorance and is its own kind of darkness.
The natural question in the face of rational hopelessness is: What is the point of our life?
Can you ask that question? Can you ask and avoid the willfully ignorant shrug? Can you ask and not dismiss it as foolishness, as the nihilist might? You must have a purpose. You must have a reason to be here, day after day.
Hope is not the reason. Your reason is why you have hope.
This is why you must care for your soul. You must guard your heart and keep hope alive within you. Be ruthless about your life because if you neglect your soul and allow voices to infiltrate your mind with lies, your flame will sputter out and die. Your purpose must lift your eyes and bring you perspective greater than yourself. It must give you meaning and fulfillment so that you can see the light, even amidst the lies.
Fill your heart and mind with good things. Allow only what brings light to your life so that your fire grows and is not stifled. Look for what is wholesome and hold fast to it; otherwise, you will lose the equilibrium of life. Like the Ouroboros when it is out of balance and destroying faster than it is creating, you will become resentful of those who have kept goodness blazing in their souls. You will feel contempt for those who kept their hope and joy, becoming bitter and jealous. You will find yourself growing cold, forgetting the work it takes to keep such a fire lit. You will pity yourself and your dying coals. Hope takes work! She will not appear as a Faerie Godmother with a magic wand to tip the balance in your favor. If you want to fight off the darkness, you must work hard to find fuel for your fire every day.
Your purpose cannot depend on the validation or acceptance of others. If you allow this, you will begin to let the fear of what they think to dictate your actions. So, if you sing, sing for yourself. If others benefit, that is good. You have brought light into their lives. But the reward must be the joy you receive from the song you sing for yourself because that is your purpose. So you will not care about quality. You will not care who hears. You will not worry about rejection because you already accept and receive the gift you have given to yourself. You will not care if you get money. And if money is taken away, you will still have your song, and you will not despair because it was a gift to yourself. The one thing that always mattered was the joy of living your purpose. And so, you will never lose hope.
As a consequence of such a mindset, you are able to help kindle the fires of others. This is what it means to bring the light. Because we are all in danger of losing hope, the person who has an abundance can share some of their flame. Because your fire will not stop burning, you can bring hope to those who have given theirs up or had theirs stolen away.
Even when all seems desperate and lost, the fire still burns. Look to the rock that is higher than you. Lift your eyes: the sun still rises. The future beckons, calling you to take part in her formation, and as you do, you participate in keeping hope alive for yourself and for others. You join in bringing beauty and light and goodness into the world. I can think of no greater purpose, nothing more significant than to spend your life looking for how you might bring light to others as you keep your fire blazing, a beacon of hope in the darkness.
The Bible is as much a story about humanity as it is about God, so it is not to be dismissed as nonsense, even if you are entirely atheistic. Much of history would have to be discarded if we only kept the bits that were void of religion or that we could understand. As Seneca said, “Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” It is foolish to dismiss a work spanning thousands of years simply because it does not align properly with your modern worldview.