Life Is Short, But It Doesn’t Have to Be Shallow—How to Capture Deep Hope
Capitalism has hijacked our emotions and rewired us for instant gratification—but we can reclaim our lives by practicing deep hope.
Andre C. Willis is the Willard Prescott and Annie McClelland Smith Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. He is a philosopher of religion whose work focuses on Enlightenment reflections on religion, African American religious thought, critical theory, and democratic citizenship as it relates to hope, recognition, and belonging.
Andre C. Willis: When one thinks about deep hope, what one thinks about first is avoiding superficial hopes like, “I hope that my Domino’s pizza will arrive on time,” or even the ambitious hopes, “I hope that my career is successful.” These things portend to a future realizable desire. And they situate that desire as probable.
When we think about deep hope we’re thinking about something that’s not linked to a desire, to the future, to an ambition or to probability. We’re thinking about a relationship to the present in a particular kind of discipline as one faces the present. Because when one faces the present one realizes things like: 'Life is short. Even though I’d like to live long I have no idea whether or not I will. My friends, my animals are all in very contingent relationships to life itself, and to me, in that we walk not on concrete but in quicksand.' So when you face those real facts about what life is and you say, “How do I relate to these facts?” The answer, I think, that comes out of the work I study, is that one faces these facts with a deep hope that is not an aspiration, it’s not a probability, it’s not a future orientation. It’s a grounded-ness in the present facts of existence.
Unfortunately our culture has emphasized the trivial hopes because those are hopes that link to markets and to achievements, which are always sort of market-linked, because markets are about growth, they’re about ambition, they’re about accomplishment, they’re about expansion.
So therefore, our culture really generates a propensity to trivial and superficial hopes, right? It counters and has made a deep hope, kind of—we’re famished when it comes to deep hope. There’s a sort of anorexia when it comes to deep hope. We've massaged and accentuated this idea of ourselves as consumers, as participants in the market that venerates instant gratification and the satisfaction of our desires in immediate kinds of ways.
To generate the deep hope, the kind of hope that I think comes out of the traditions I study, one has to really slow down and face a different set of facts. And those facts are about the fundamentals of the experience of life. That is to say, life is tragic. One’s promises will never be completely fulfilled and one’s desires can never ultimately be met. That is just what life is.
So how do we cultivate a deep hope in the face of a culture which wants to accentuate instant gratification and overstimulation? Well I say it requires us to take some steps back. To step out of the market culture. To step away from the interests of global capital which are about accomplishment, achievement, expansion and growth, and to do more work around a sense of quietude, do more interior work and do more work in communities that affirm togetherness in a collective sense of what can go on outside of markets. So things like gentleness and compassion. There’s marvelous work that’s being done in schools and community centers and in art workshops, artist workshops, where people come together and engage in—they don’t talk about hope, they just sort of quietly face the present with a sense of being there.
Deep hope comes from a rich engagement in those kinds of rooted tasks, that kind of groundedness that we get from community and collectives and relationships that have little to do with market values but are more about a more organic connectedness and fundamental linkages with the true facts of life and one another.
There are two kinds of hope, and between them is a world of difference, says Andre C. Willis. The one we use and speak about most often is what he calls trivial hope, which has superficial aims like, "I hope that my Domino’s pizza will arrive on time," or, "I hope that my career is successful." What makes these superficial is that they relate to probable futures, and are underpinned by the heavy hand of market capitalism, which increasingly tells us what we desire and what our ambitions are. How can we overcome that emotional hijacking? Willis contends that the second kind of hope, 'deep hope', is the antidote to the shallow living Western culture is up against. Deep hope is not based on measurable rewards or future desires, but is a way to face the true facts of life. What are those? Willis explains above, and fills us in on why we need a special toolkit to relate to the present without delusions. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.
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