Hope: The Essence of Emotional Immaturity


“Now remains faith, hope, and love.” So says the writer of 1 Corinthians 13. While much ink has been sacrificed to the cause of faith and love, not enough has been allocated to hope. While I believe that faith is the retreat of the undisciplined mind, and love, the fundamental ingredient for all productive, human association, hope is the essence of emotional immaturity.

Hope is the optimistic anticipation of a more favorable outcome than that which a rational assessment of the situation predicts. It is replacing the rain clouds we see overhead with the blue skies we conjure in our minds. It is choosing the emotional attachment of desire over the rational assessment of what reality presents. No matter how we dress it up for intellectual exercise, hope is little more than wishing, intently, for that which reason suggests is highly unlikely. When hope is one of only three things that remain, there had better be more substance in the other two.

For many, hope is the fundamental building block of reality. They believe that if they hope fervently enough, they influence reality to bend in their favor. They go far beyond merely wanting a thing, and escalate to believing it to be true based on nothing more than hope. Set up for failure in this way, the only thing left is to be crushed by the cruel reality that the universe does not care about your hope. The only other possibility is that the holder of unrequited hope doubles down on hope, believing that the hoped for reward has simply been deferred to a later time. When faith and hope combine, no amount of reality can intrude on the fantasy that hope will, one day, be fulfilled.

Fantasy is a compelling retreat from reality. I engage in it myself from time to time. When reality becomes too oppressive, I sometimes imagine a different one where things turn out better. If the fantasy is particularly good, I might even try and come up with ways to make that imagined outcome a reality. However, I never confuse the two. The ability to separate fantasy from reality is a critical part of the maturation process.

Small children do not have the facility for distinguishing fantasy and reality. They are easily deceived by fanciful tales. They are constantly inundated with the message that good things will happen if they only believe hard enough. Hope is the active ingredient of faith.

More to the point, children desperately want to believe, especially when things are not going well. Magical thinking is the only tool with which we equip our children for dealing with difficult truths. Children have almost no control of their world. For them, faith, hope, and love are the only things they can control.

As we mature, we gain more control over our world. Faith and hope must give way to reason and reality. Those who do not manage that transition, write checks they hope will clear, without rational assessment of their funds. They hope the cigarettes do not adversely effect them without regard to the empirical evidence. They hope the next, unadvised relationship works out better than the last, or that the unprotected sex does not end up in disease, or an unwanted pregnancy, and that god will put it all to rights in the end.

Like drunkards, we stagger from hope to hope. One false hope barely has time to be crushed before we more on to the next. We are addicted to hope in the same way that a gambler is addicted to another spin at the wheel. We just can’t imagine living life without it.

But is it really so bad to live a life without hope? I think not. It is true that a person with cancer is most likely going to die from that cancer unless she dies of something else first. But is that reality really so bad? Why would you think so? Is it not a given that we are all going to die? If the goal is to avoid the ultimate endgame of life, then the situation is hopeless. Whether or not we beat the current bout of cancer, we’re still going to die. Denial of that fact is a sign of emotional immaturity.

We are sometimes tempted to ask why a particular thing happened to us, as if we believed that we were supposed to be immune from such things. It is as if we believe that all of the bad things in life are meant for other people. That somehow, if we exude enough hope for a better outcome, we will have protection against the things that happen to the people with less hope. That is childish, narcissistic, and delusional.

Many people use hope as a treatment for depression. We believe it is better to have people lie to themselves about unpleasant realities than to face them. A person with late-stage, inoperable cancer, and hope, will most likely die in a hospital surrounded by machines in and expensive, and futile attempt to postpone the inevitable. The same person without hope, but armed with knowledge and emotional maturity, will also die, but in a hospice situation, without pain or fear, and surrounded by loved ones. Trading hope for reality has its perquisites.

Finally, it is my observation that hope and help are too often confused. I am without hope, but not without help. My life economy is not based on a requisite amount of luck. Serendipity is a welcomed event, not a plan. I do not waste a lot of time hoping that things happen. If I want something to happen, I do everything in my power to make it happen. I am hopeless, not helpless.

Only the emotionally immature spend much time fretting over, and hoping for things that are beyond their control. The Christian treats hope like a magic substance. If you hope hard enough, it will come true. Placing hope in matters of faith is not substantively different than wishing on a star.

The non-believer does not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. We cannot afford to hope for the best. We must work for the best. If you hope that your child get’s over her cold, you give her medicine; you don’t indulge in childish hope. False hope simply deprives a person from making real plans. A person with the false hope of a quick recovery may put off making proper arrangements for his passing, leaving his family in a difficult position.

I have been to the brink. I can say with absolute conviction that for the emotionally mature, there is no reason to call a priest to issue last rights, to renew your hope. Where there is no fear, there is no need for hope. Religion creates, or at least, exacerbates the fear that requires the hope in the first place. Ridding yourself of the one, eliminates your need for the other.

Now abides faith, hope, and love. I say that with enough of the latter, there is no need for the former two.

David Johnson