This essay, on the meaning of hope, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 15 July 2018 under the headline ‘The Thai cave rescue was born of hope, an instinct that sustains and drives us’.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ So reads the inscription above the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno. There must have been times over the past two weeks when it might have seemed the inscription to the entrance to the Tham Luang caves in Thailand. Twelve boys and their football coach trapped in total darkness, tired and emaciated, three kilometres from the entrance, cut off by flooded chambers and facing the threat of monsoon rain.
Yet what those caves have come to symbolise is the very opposite. Not the abandonment of hope but its sustenance in the most difficult of circumstances. Hope embodied in the boys, whose resilience in the face of almost impossible odds was remarkable; in the rescuers who risked their lives, refusing to countenance defeat; in the authorities whose every decision took no little courage. ‘Hope became reality’, said Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew, head of the Thai navy Seals, as the last boy was carried out of the caves.
In everyday life, we use ‘hope’ in many contexts, from personal desire – ‘I hope I get an iPhone for Christmas’ – to political yearnings – ‘I hope the trade war does not end up in real war’. But hope in the sense of that which was abandoned at Dante’s gates of Hell or sustained in the Tham Luang caves expresses something more profound: our ability as humans to imagine a future and to act in a way that might shape it. It suggests that hope is not mere wish or desire but an indissoluble feature of our humanity.
Yet, if hope is a concept inextricably linked to our understanding of ourselves as human, it is also an idea that has long been disparaged by serious thinkers. For many, it is too woolly, and too religious, a concept to take seriously. For others, it is troublesome because to hope is also to fear. Hope and fear, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca argued, ‘march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to’. Both ‘project our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present’.
It’s a view echoed by many contemporary thinkers. Hope and fear, suggests the American writer Sam Harris, ‘are two sides of the same coin: if we would be free of fear, we must let go of hope’.
It is true that hope and fear are intertwined. As the Thai boys were rescued, there cannot have been many who did not fear that all might not survive. Yet the insistence that one should jettison hope because it is linked to fear is no more meaningful than would be the claim that we should do away with the idea of the ‘good’ because it cannot exist without also the concept of the ‘bad’.
In worrying about hope, what many dread is not fear but the risk of failure. To act on hope is to act without certainty, to risk disappointment. One can, of course, plan, and do so with the meticulous care exhibited by the Thai rescuers. But humans, in the end, have to make choices without knowing fully the consequences of doing so. There is no God, or scientific law, that can free us from the possibility of failure or absolve us from having to take responsibility for our actions.
It is the uncertainty, and the risk of disappointment, that we experience as fear. The only way to rid ourselves of the fear of failure is by never trying in the first place. But that would be unconscionably worse than failing. No one, even those who dismiss the idea of hope, would have suggested that there should not have been a rescue attempt at the Tham Luang caves. Yet, how could such a rescue have been attempted without either a hope for success or a fear of failure? Hope and fear accompany not just each other, but also any expression of human agency.
To repudiate hope, in other words, is also to deny agency. Such denial is most acute not in circumstances such as the cave rescue but in the realm of politics.
Politics entails collective action in the pursuit of goals, the outcome of which we can never be certain. A feature of recent decades has been both growing disillusionment with collective action and the erosion of movements for social change. This has given rise to a distorted sense of who or what can effect change. In America, four out of five people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 saw an ability to bring about change as his most important quality. That tells us less about Trump than it does about the way that real agents of change, social movements that can truly transform people’s lives, have crumbled.
And not just in America. Across the world, from Turkey to the Philippines, from Russia to Rwanda, there has been the emergence of the democratically elected authoritarian, of strongmen in whom many voters place their trust because no other routes to change are visible.
At the same time, we have seen also the rise of technocratic governments in which democratically elected politicians are replaced by experts, supposedly above the political fray. The outcome of democratic politics is necessarily uncertain. But it embodies a certain sense of hope about the ability of humans, collectively, to shape our future. The rise of technocracy, as much as of authoritarianism, is a questioning of such hope.
No one has reflected more profoundly about the nature of hope than those who survived the death camps of the Holocaust. Viktor Frankl spent three years incarcerated in concentration camps, including six months in Auschwitz. His 1946 work, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a meditation on that experience, a reflection on the ability of human beings to survive even the most degrading and tormenting of circumstances.
Humans, Frankl suggests, find themselves only through creating meaning in the world. Meaning is not something to be discovered – it is something that humans create. They do so by acting upon the world. ‘Man does not simply exist,’ Frankl wrote, ‘but always decides what his existence will be.’
Hope was, for Frankl, an essential feature of human existence. Not hope in the sense of believing that someone or something will save us, but as an acknowledgement that, whatever the uncertainties, or fear of failure, we have a duty to make choices and to act upon them. That was what sustained the rescue in the Tham Luang caves. It is also what we need to rescue our politics.
The paintings are Gustav Klimt’s ‘Hope II’ and ‘The Navigator’s Hope III’ by Joan Miró.