What is the meaning of hope, and how can it help us through the days and nights of our despair?

For many, hope is a quality that imbues us with grace in the face of adversity. It is an internal process that allows us to encounter the world with awe and faith in a more numinous realm, an intrinsic and existential mindset of being.

For others, hope is synonymous with “want” or “expectation.” It denotes a passive, “wait and see,” approach to a desired object or outcome.  Understood in this way, hope is a state of mind, a wish or thought born from distress and defeat.

But hope is also a dynamic process involving the active pursuit of goals, a determination of how to reach these goals, and the willpower to see them to fruition. Hope makes us creative; it challenges us to discover strategies for survival through the use of commitment, connection and action. In the end, hope engenders faith. It forces us to think and act with a higher power in mind.

Psychologists have long studied the formation and growth of hope in infants and children. These studies suggest that an important antecedent of hope is “goal selection,” and that this behavior begins to develop immediately after birth.

Specifically, as infants master the act of receiving food, protection and comfort from a caregiver, they are learning how to select necessary and life-sustaining goals. They are also learning that specific actions produce desired outcomes. And once these basic needs are met, infants will begin to seek further stimulation, exhibiting curiosity about the world around them. Pointing to a toy produces a desired outcome, for example, and crying facilitates succor and support.

As we grow, we begin to use reasoning skills and strategies to determine ways of getting what we need or want (e.g., we ask politely versus scream and demand). These skills become the next antecedents of hope. Through frustration and trial and error, we learn to overcome obstacles that keep us from attaining our goals. And with persistence and effort, most of us begin to perceive ourselves as capable of effecting change in the world.

But children who live in fear, or those of us who have been over-exposed to stress or grief, have learned to shut down or to abandon efforts that are aimed at achieving a desired outcome. Trauma and loss make many of us, young and old alike, question our self-confidence and our sense of efficacy, and we begin to believe that some goals are simply unattainable. Strategies we once thought of as helpful and promising become elusive, and hope diminishes.

Thus, we search for willpower. In their research on infant and child development, authors McDermott and Snyder assert that willpower is the third antecedent of hope. They define willpower as the supply of mental energy and commitment that we draw upon in the pursuit of our goals. Willpower requires focus, proper nutrition, exercise and self-care. It demands patience and practice. It asks us to identify our negative and self-defeating thoughts and it challenges us to replace them with positive statements and beliefs.

As we reach for hope, thus, we discover that we are being forced to identify our goals, to determine strategies and plans that will help us achieve our goals, and to nurture our will and our energy to see them into fruition.

Religion has wrestled with the concept of hope from the beginning of creation. Indeed, perhaps the first example of hope in human form was Adam in the Book of Genesis.

Forced to survive the challenges of the new and potentially menacing world into which he was cast, Adam received the mandate by God to “fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). He was told to be fruitful and multiply; and to have dominion over every living thing; from beast and fowl to every herb yielding seed.

Through this account of Adam, we learn that man is endowed as a creative being. Fashioned in the “image of God,” he is blessed with great drive and with the ability to be a creator. Man starts his life in pursuit of a goal. He has the unending resources and the human intelligence to realize his goal. And through curiosity and desire, he develops the willpower to conquer, dominate and master it.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, the great scholar and authority on the meaning of Jewish law, expounds from this account of Adam that man is interested in the practical and the functional aspects of his intellect. Adam asks about the mechanisms of existence.

Through Adam, we discover that a primitive and essential quest for man is the “how” of behavior, for he is charged with a striving and an attraction toward improving his position in relation to his environment. Man expresses a basic need to harness and dominate the forces of nature so that he can put them to his own use. Born from this practical need, thus, is man’s willpower to learn the secrets of nature.

Most importantly, man struggles to triumph over his world in “the image of God.” He attempts mastery and dominion, therefore, through duplicating what he sees. He is adventurous but obedient; his efforts are directed by a need for precision, function and productivity.

This interpretation casts Adam as a hopeful man whose natural reaction in the face of adversity is to survive through conquering opposition and achieving his goals. Hope asks Adam to master his traumas, to survive the challenges of the life that lies before him. It demands focus and determination; connection, partnership and action. Most important, hope asks for Adam’s indomitable spirit, his wish for success, and his need for succor. In the words of one of patient:

As I watch my mother, who is afflicted with a rare dementia, linger in a state of suspended reality, where every day is the same day for her, a repetitive existence where her memory and speech and self-awareness are all but lost now, I tell myself that she will get better. I tell myself that there must be something that science can do to help her. Nothing comes. But I have hope. I will search for alternative cures, medicines that are being used in other countries. I pray for the strength to find a cure and for my mother’s full recovery.

There appears, however, to be a second account of the creation of Adam in the beginning of Genesis; and it suggests to us that the man of hope transcends into a man of faith. In this account, Adam is described as having a different approach to the mandate he was given.

As the Rav asserts, this second Adam is not a man who is interested in “how” things work, but in “why” things exist in the first place. Adam “the second” was placed in the Garden of Eden to “cultivate it and keep it,” (Genesis 2:15) and is thus tragically in search of an understanding of the world into which he was cast. He encounters his environment with wonder, awe and naiveté. Adam is alone and alienated from the menacing world, and he turns his focus inward and struggles to find his identity.

Through this second account of Adam, we learn that man is not just a creator, but a seeker as well. For, as the Rav asserts, Adam is also in search of catharsis, redemption and a hallowed existence. He is charged not only with control over his environment, but also with control over himself. He recoils at times; he reflects and retreats.

In his solitary search for meaning and answers, man discovers that he must allow himself to be defeated. And in his defeat, man is confronted by a higher power and a greater plan. This aloneness offers man, as Kierkegaard suggests, a chance to gain “infinite reality” by being conscious of existing before God.

This second account of Adam shows us that he is a man of faith as well as hope. Faith asks Adam to search for answers that are far beyond his cognitive reach; it forces him to accept that not all mysteries can be explained. We see that the Adam of faith is receptive and curious. He searches inwardly for relief and, when no relief comes, he allows himself to be overpowered by God.

Faith asks Adam to surrender to distress and defeat. It requires discipline, self-control and a belief in something grander, and it promises transcendence and redemption as a reward. In the words of one patient:

I think of people who have no faith and then I think of the words we read in the Bible: “They have eyes but they can’t see, they have ears, but they don’t hear, they have noses but do not smell, their feet, they do not walk, the hands do not feel…” But I have faith. And I know that I am more alive on this day than anyone because I seek the world that G-d lives in. I want to know its walls and ways. It is like paddling but in the opposite form; ever so quiet, so as to hear and see and smell and walk and feel.

Thus, the embrace between God and man begins with the pursuit of a goal – to know the world’s ways and to understand the secrets of nature – and it ends with veneration and deference to the One who guards all unanswered questions.

Like the rapprochement phase in child development, where the infant craves attachment and independence from its caretaker both at the same time, the man of hope first encounters God with desire and awe, runs away, and then looks back to assure himself that God is running after him. Like Moses who hid his face from the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), man runs, only to yearn for unity later, as when Moses finally longed to see God’s “glory” at Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:18). As the patient of a child with cancer once said:

I never believed in God before. As a child I would run from my parents when it was time to go to prayer service. But now, as I look at my son, day after day dying in this hospital bed, I think to myself, ‘There really must be a God, for I need Him now more than ever.”

Hope and faith thus consummate a dual existence in every man. Hope starts us on a path toward understanding and action, and it leads us to a place of wonder and elevation. With hope, we act with dignity and responsibility. We become dynamic and creative, attempting mastery over our fate. We grow externally to apprehend the world.

We ask our doctors for help and we search the internet for answers to medical questions. Some of us raise money to find cures, while others reach out to legislators and law-makers to effect change in government policies.

But in our searching, we discover that we must also direct ourselves inward as well. Some read through prayer books, and others study with religious leaders and practice God’s ways. Still others among us link ourselves to the chain of history that brought us here and, as the Jewish scholar Maimonides said in his Guide of the Perplexed, we attempt to “know the knower” like our forefathers and spiritual leaders did generations before.

Indeed, as Maimonides asserts, in our struggle to know ourselves and our world better, we begin to see and honor God’s “infinite wisdom and wondrous works” better as well. The Torah refers to this transformation as a state of devekut, or “cleaving;” one cannot know the ways of the world without knowing and loving God’s ways as well.

Cleaving is an embrace of love and friendship between man and God that is marked by an independence from fear and awe. As the Rav asserts, it is a state of being that unites thought, will and action, endowing us with deeper compassion and a conscious devotion to “the other.”

Cleaving anchors us more firmly in the world. It enables us to give of ourselves more unreservedly because our identity no longer feels endangered. Through cleaving, we perceive God in ourselves, but we still maintain our uniqueness and originality.

This state of cleaving, this embrace between man and God, is no better illustrated than in the story of Vincent, a 19-year-old patient who, at the time of our work together, was dying from an inoperable brain tumor. The third son in a family of four boys born to immigrant Italian parents, Vincent had grown from a once healthy and talented soccer player and artist into a weak and tired young man who lay in the dark of his room reading from his Bible. On days when Vincent was too weak to read out loud, he led me to the passages he wished to hear. And one day, in the midst of my reading, he stopped me and asked:

“Do you believe?”

“Do I believe what, Vincent?”

“Do you believe that God was able to heal the sick?”

I sat quietly for a while, hoping not to interrupt the course of Vincent’s prayers.

“I don’t know.” I finally replied.

And after a long silence, he looked up at me and said, “Please promise me that you will read His words. I believe that God heals the sick, And I want you to believe also.”

Hours later, when Vincent finally died, his mother took me by the hand and guided me to the bed where he lay, saying “I knew that God would perform a miracle. I knew that He would heal my boy. And He has. For now my son is with God. He is finally healed.”

Cleaving thus comes through hope and faith. But as the Rav states, it also comes through knowledge. Knowledge of the world translates into “will,” and for the Rav, “will” transforms into “action.” Those of us who grieve and search for hope must also search for knowledge. We need to study the ways of the world and practice what we learn, perfecting ourselves in relation to our fellow man, and with regard to our inner virtues as well. Like Vincent, who spent his last days on earth reading and cleaving to God, our pursuit of knowledge will eventually allow us to unite with the mystery that is  yet unknown.

Thus, through hope we discover faith and the pursuit of redemption. Hope sets us on a path toward attaining our goals; it helps us determine strategies for living and it transforms our will into action. And when all hope seems lost, faith asks us to look inward and to think differently. Faith teaches us to look for new ways to live in a life filled with pain. It guides us to develop new pursuits; to achieve new victories. And through our pursuits, we encounter God’s ways and we are challenged to unite with Him; only to find ourselves cleaving to both. In the end, we learn that religion is the confluence of two parallel forces; man’s wish to create a livable world, replete with the hope of grace and dignity, and man’s need to honor and accept what is unlivable through sacrifice, faith and love.

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Norman Fried

Norman Fried

Norman J. Fried, Ph.D., is director of psycho-social services for the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Winthrop University on Long Island, New York. A clinical psychologist with graduate degrees from Emory University, he has also taught in the medical schools of New York University and St. John's University, and has been a fellow in clinical and pediatric psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Fried is a Disaster Mental Health Specialist for The American Red Cross of Greater New York, and he has a private practice in grief and bereavement counseling on Long Island. He is married with three sons and lives in Roslyn, New York.

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