The Quest for Hope

“Where there’s life, there’s hope” is a deep truth. Deeper, however, is the converse: “Where there’s hope, there’s life.”

We humans are hoping creatures; we live very largely on and in our anticipations, things we know are coming and we look forward to. If the light of hope goes out, life shrinks to mere existence, something far less than life was meant to be. This is a fact that must be faced.

It was a Headmaster’s Conference boys’ school, one of England’s educational elite, and amid its quite brilliant galaxy of instructors the scholar who stood out was the man we called Bill (behind his back, of course), the headmaster. When I studied Greek and Latin classics at Oxford, I met up with no tutor who could hold a candle to Bill or could teach me half as much as Bill had taught me already. He was a clergyman’s son who had retreated from the faith and become a sort of Buddhist.

Decades later, chatting with one of my former pedagogues, I asked after Bill, by then retired and, as I knew, in his early nineties. The reply to my question, based on a recent visit, ran thus (I seem to recall it word for word): “He’s very low. I asked him what he was doing these days; all he would say was, ‘Waiting for the end.’” Remembering the sharp-edged, upbeat vigor of Bill’s mind in his heyday, I felt very sad for him. Buddhism, as we know, does not beget hope. So here was a long-lived man, brilliant in his day, now withering rather than blossoming as he aged. Is that the best one can hope for?

Hope At the End

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” declared Alexander Pope in his usual pompous way, but that is not all the story. For the first half of people’s lives, spontaneous hope does indeed spur them forward. Children hope to do this and that when they grow up; teens hope to go places and do things when they have some money; newlyweds hope for a good income, a good place to live, and good-quality children; established couples hope for the day when the children will be off their hands and they are free to cruise, tour, and see the world. But what then?

There comes a point at which the elderly and those who, as we say, are getting on realize that of all the things they wanted to do, they have done all they can, and the rest are now permanently out of reach (“life’s too short,” we say wryly).

Yet life goes on. Today, indeed, people live longer than once they did, but the common experience is that extended and extreme age brings only bleak boredom and a diminished sense of the good life as consisting merely of three meals a day, television to watch, and a bed at night. Whether, as bodily health fades and minds and memories run increasingly amok, any better, more enriching experience of old age is possible is a question that secular social theory has shown itself unable to answer.

But the Bible appears to have an answer.

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