There have been many things once thought of as unique to humans that turned out not to be quite so. Crows can use tools, dogs at least seem to smile, elephants mourn their dead, octopuses hoard treasures, and more than a few creatures can recognize themselves in a mirror. What’s left, the scientists say, is that mankind is the only species to “self-reflect,” to be capable of considering himself from a different perspective. Only humans can contemplate their own purpose and mortality.
If that is true, I have to say that some people are more human than others, because I’ve known more than a few who hide behind dogma to avoid their own reflections and also the occasional one whose gene pool was not deep enough to cast a reflection.
Still, what I wonder is why we continue to hope in the face of all the tragedy of this world. For some reason, that characteristic seems to color our self-reflection with its rosy tone. The evidence against a reliable basis for hope is pretty substantial, and yet we continue to believe that we will rise again with the sun each morning. We believe the future will be better for our children, and we believe that hard work will be rewarded. The lottery industry is even based on this premise, but the odds of making it out of this world alive are even worse than those.
I suppose some say that optimism is a Darwinian necessity – we have to be blind to the odds in order not to be eaten alive by our fears. But if that is true for humans, how do you distinguish the non-sentient rest of the animal kingdom which carries on without the reason to know better?
I claim no expertise, other than having pondered the question for some time, but perhaps the onus of knowing we will die comes with a balancing gift of hope. The Greeks offered something like this bargain in the myth of Pandora, who found hope remaining in her box after its contents of woe were freed. Judeo-Christian scripture pairs the knowledge of good and evil with its corresponding curse that we shall all surely die.
Some years ago, I kept a blog named after Emily Dickinson’s poem above, which documented the time when my son was diagnosed and treated for a rare form of leukemia. It was hope that kept me going and that drove me to help him see the ordeal through. There was little medical basis for hope, but it sustained me and I marvel still at both its persistence and the stamina that it gave me. One can read the same story in the language of faith, and I would respect that point of view, as well.
In any language, hope is a mystery from which miracles arise, or in the words of L.J. Suenens, “Hope is not a dream, but a way of making dreams a reality.”