What do you hope for? And do you know what hope is? Dante defined hope as "a certain expectation of future glory, the product of divine grace and precedent merit."
Perhaps our expectations of future glory are quite uncertain; does that mean we are without hope?
Emily Dickinson's lines are evocative: "Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the song without the words / And never stops at all....."
The more definitions and descriptions of hope I found, the more dissatisfied I became, the more driven to frame a meaning of my own. Most of the definitions point to the future, but my feeling is that hope is anchored in some present reality more than in the future.
What makes us hopeful or casts us into despair is what is going on within us now.
So the definition I would offer is: Hope is the experience of being in touch with some basic center of vitality within oneself. We may reach it through the joy of sparkling color, glorious music, a friendship, a love, an achievement, a response to something we have said, a good service to someone well done, a feeling of power and control over some area of our lives. But the spring is within us. That source of vitality casts its beam ahead into the darkness, and we experience it as hope.
Let us not make it sound easy. There are so many ways to be without hope. Think of the people for whom some area of life is frozen, seemingly unchangeable.
Think of the persons who work for years and years at jobs that give them nothing. Think of those who are not only ill or disabled, but whose anger and bitterness at their ill-fortune clouds their lives. Think of those who have lost control of their own lives, who are caught in the grip of alcohol or drugs or mental illness, so that they cannot count on themselves.
The people I know who struggle with an alcohol problem can feel very hopeless about it, and so about themselves. What they discover as they gain control over the drinking is that alcohol is not the whole problem of anyone's life.
But asserting mastery over that area gives them a fairer chance to deal with some of the other problems and a base of some confidence from which to begin. Hope is the experience of being in touch with a basic center of vitality within oneself. What gets in the way of our connecting? Why is despair so prevalent?
There are many forms of the spiritual poverty that diminishes our hope. One is existence in the midst of violence and ugliness. For example, to see and hear what is going on in Iraq and Iran and Pakistan and North Korea can feel impoverishing.
Another form of spiritual poverty is pretending to believe things we don't believe, saying the words over and over and pushing down our doubts is a desperate way to live. Underneath the pretense one has to feel hopeless.
We are all mortal, and we deal with that fact in terms of the meaning of our present lives and what influences we shall leave behind. Or we cover that over and build a reservoir of panic beneath the surface.
My experience as a minister with people who are facing major crises is that hopefulness depends more upon an inner spiritual equilibrium than on an objective assessment of what is going to happen. Feeling alone and cut off, lacking some sense of who we are and what we are living for, these are the grounds of despair.
Religious communities can help people to feel less alone; we may be able to put some people in touch with the best sources of vitality they possess.
We are used to associating hope with freshness, creativity, youth, and beginnings, for surely they are full of promise. There is also hope in endings, for they, too, can put us in touch with hitherto inaccessible springs of vitality and growth. There are grounds for hope, too, in maturity and age, for think what we have paid to know who we are.
Kenneth Torquil MacLean is the minister of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.