The Power of Hope

Dr. Brian Allison

'Life is difficult'. Such are the poignant words with which Scott M. Peck begins his popular book, The Road Less Travelled. Life is certainly difficult, because life consists of 'bitter herbs'. The triumphant life and the tragic death of Princess Diana continues to simmer in our minds. Though an ambassador of compassion, she was a bearer of suffering. The early years of her marriage to Prince Charles were unstable. Prince Charles' adultery in 1986 devastated her. In addition to the pain of unfaithfulness, Diana experienced stress and sadness from the overwhelming (and often insensitive) media pressure that surrounded the Royal couple. Further, she was subjected to isolation and alienation from the other members of the Royal family. As a result, she experienced deep grief and great despair; a state that particularly manifested itself in severe bulimia, as well as in self-mutilation. Yet, astoundingly, out of her maelstrom of suffering, Diana could remark during a 1992 interview, "I do not sit here with resentment. I sit here in sadness, and in hope that there will be a future for my husband, a future for myself, and a future for the monarchy." In hope, Diana persevered through the wretched fires of her crucible, though they eventually consumed her. In hope, she found the courage to press on, defying the odds and scorning the opposition. Hope is empowering. It provides us with meaning and motivation when all else seems to have failed. O. S. Marden writes, "The hopeful person sees success where others see failure; sunshine where others see shadows and storms."

Hope is a positive outlook. It is the disposition which anticipates and expects a brighter future, a change for the better. Again, O. S. Marden comments, "There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow." Victor Frankl was a well-known Jewish psychiatrist. He tenaciously endured the inhumane horrors of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. At one time, he was a prisoner in the notorious Auschwitz. In order to survive the onerous ordeal, Frankl endeavoured to transcend his suffering, and thus discover meaning for his life in the midst of his miserable misfortunes. He was able to achieve this quest through the power of hope. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, he writes, in reference to his confinement in the concentration camps, "The prisoner who had lost hope in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future [hope], he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay" (p. 82).

Frankl continues this account by relaying a disturbing, but revealing, story. A senior block warden came to him one day and confided in him. This warden shared a strange dream with him. In the dream, a voice spoke to the warden, saying, "You can wish for any knowledge and it will be granted. Ask anything you want to know and you will receive the answer. All questions will be answered regardless of what you ask." Of course, this enchanted warden asked, "When will the war end for me? When will this camp be liberated? When will all the suffering be over?" (Now, this dream occurred in February, 1945. He rehearsed this dream to Frankl at the beginning of March, 1945). The voice responded, "The suffering will be over, the war will end, by March 30th."

Frankl writes that this warden revealed his dream, and particularly the voice's answer, with obvious hope and observable excitement. This man was convinced that the voice was right. As the promised day approached, the camp received only less than encouraging news concerning the war. Any indication of impending freedom by the promised date of March 30th appeared discouragingly remote. On March 29th, this warden suddenly became ill and registered a high temperature; on March 30th, he became delirious and lost consciousness; on March 31st, he was dead. From all natural appearances, this warden had died from typhus, an infectious disease. But Frankl insightfully comments, "Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man – his courage and hope, or lack of them – and the state of the immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect. The ultimate cause of my friend's death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed. This suddenly lowered his body's resistance against the latent typhus infection. His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness – and thus the voice of his dream was right after all" (p. 84). Interestingly, the Scriptures concur with this cause-effect relationship. We read, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life" (Prov. 13:12). The power of hope produces inner strength, rugged confidence, and dogged perseverance. The lack of hope produces weakness, debilitation, and even death.

The power of hope, and thus the peace of hope, rests in the reality of faith. The root of faith supports the foliage of hope. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, historian, and dissident thinker, was deported from Russia in 1974 because he had criticized the prison and forced labour camps in the Soviet Union. He had first-hand experience of the appalling conditions and the terrible treatment evident in these camps. From 1945 to 1953, he was imprisoned because he had openly criticized Joseph Stalin in a letter. From 1953 to 1956, the state exiled him to Siberia. During this period of imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn had reached a point of both physical and emotional exhaustion. His own assessment was that he was ready to die. He had abandoned all hope of surviving. On one occasion, during his dark disconsolation, he was engaged in hard labour, shoveling relentlessly for twelve hours a day under the blazing sun, being sustained simply by a starvation diet. He stood at the precipice of actually quitting, and thus in danger of suffering the fatal consequences of resistance and insubordination. Solzhenitsyn recounts that at that critical moment in his life, a fellow worker, who was also a fellow Christian, came up beside him and with a cane drew the symbol of a cross in the dirt and quickly erased it, returning to his work. Solzhenitsyn affirms that in beholding that symbol of the cross, a renewed hope flooded his mind, inspiring him to persevere. He insists that this symbol of hope continued to propel and encourage him so that he patiently persisted throughout the subsequent days of his confinement in the prison camps.

The Holy Scriptures read, "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (Jas. 1:12). There is no crown without a cross. Humans can persevere heroically through tragedy and tribulation by the power of hope. Again, the Scriptures read, "For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it" (Rm. 8:23-25).

Hope that is truly the salutary balm to life's putrid sores must be rooted in eternity. Bernard Shaw, the witty, brilliant, and sophisticated Irish essayist and lecturer referred to the barrenness of his life with the following pointed statement, "There are two tragedies in life, the first is not to get your heart's desire, and the second is to get your heart's desire." When a person does not get his heart's desire, he becomes frustrated, and he often experiences a sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment. Even after a person does get his or her heart's desire, a sense of hopelessness may persist; life may remain void of meaning, excruciatingly empty. Hence, Sir Thomas Lipton, the English multimillionaire and well known international boat racer, bemoaned, while on his death bed, that he would have sacrificed every trophy in his collection for the one that he had not yet won – a hope of heaven and eternal life.