“Hope is an obligation”

Yep, that was me who said it. and it has acquired a tiny -- a very tiny -- currency. Two wonderful people in particular, Jeanne A. E. DeVoto and Jon Carroll, have adopted it, after a fashion; it has even been attributed to Jon himself. Weird. I’ve seen it in the title of an article in the Utne Reader, probably coincidentally but possibly not, and also in somebody’s blog in a collection of overheard-in-a-bar things. It’s nice to have the thought out there.

But it’s odd to see one’s own words adopted as if they formed some sort of remarkable statement, especially when what they say is merely a truism. It’s even odder to see them used in bizarrely inapposite fashion, say, as a justification for pursuing diplomatic insanity. Or take this, the strange title of the aforementioned Utne article: “For Marion Stoddard, Creating Hope is an Obligation.” As Jon is fond of saying, “This just in” -- nobody can “create” hope.

So to explain what shouldn’t be necessary to explain, if some have found this little dictum worth hanging on to, it can only be on account of what invariably makes an aphorism worthy: it says something that is indisputably true, in language just unexpected enough that the hearer is brought up short and has to take a moment to ascertain how it is true.

It is not often appreciated that when a St Paul takes up his pen and writes “Trust, hope, love abide, these three,” he is not simply putting down words in an attempt to justify whatever pretty little conceit has just entered his pretty little head, in the manner of a Kenneth Baker art review. In Paul’s time it was still natural -- not yet hopelessly passé -- actually to attempt to say something that was in alignment with the truth. Not the relative “truth” of “theorists” like the hapless art critic; not mere “facts” -- cheap substitutes for truth, after all; but, as the Greek word for truth can be translated -- at least way, way down at its roots -- that which is “unhideable,” that which does not, cannot, remain hidden.

And the St Paul who chooses these three words doesn’t just pluck them out of the air: he resumes them, takes them up from where he found them in the surrounding culture: they were cast up from the depths of the soul, on the journey to those depths undertaken by Herakleitos centuries earlier. Herakleitos found that the substance that abides, the eternal substance, is made of trust, hope, and love.

It is a pity that English has lost the wonderful archaic active verb permain -- related to permanent in the same way as remain is to remnant. To permain is to be permanent, to abide, expressed actively. “Trust, hope, love permain, these three.” Paul could hardly make it clearer that the truth of the eternal substance that is alive in him is the same substance brought up from the depth by the philosopher.

If one says “love is an obligation” no one will blink an eye, because this member of the Herakleitean trinity is so obvious and well known as an aspect of the universal substance that no one finds it necessary to start trying to analyse just how that substance could possibly be “obligatory” -- after all, when we find ourselves separated from the substance of love, it is immediately obvious to us that the fault is within us, inherently; and it is then obvious to us that we are called to reattune ourselves to that eternal reality, never expecting to become at one with it in this life, but knowing that it is this toward which we must strain.

Similarly, it does not strike us as particularly strange to hear that “trust is an obligation,” because again, we know our attunement to this eternal tone is a matter of urgent importance. Yet who would hear that statement as a call to trust the untrustworthy? to indulge in the folly of putting our faith in one who -- in this broken world -- is our murderer, or one who would rob us, cheat us, betray us? Few, I hope, are so dull as to take such a statement — which urges us to follow the call of our highest nature -- as instead urging us toward the stupidity of ignoring reality, and indulging in irresponsible folly.

So a word of caution: Those who suppose that “‘creating’ hope is an obligation” may find that their overreaching self-absorption gets in the way of this eternal substance doing its work within them. And those who take the obligation of hope as some sort of support for the “moral” superiority of “turning the other cheek” to tyrants, dictators, murderers, and zealots -- well, indulge in your folly all you like, but kindly omit the recourse to my little sentence, so that I can continue to trust -- and hope -- that it may still find hearers willing to let it speak in the way it was meant to.

Hope is an obligation. When we find ourselves out of tune with the universal harmony and can’t hear the note of hope, our obligation is not to blunder forth and make pests of ourselves trying to “create” that which it is our own fault to have missed. Nor is it to act as if we ourselves could choose when and where the note should be heard, and start erecting cloud-castles out of what we will that hope to be. Our obligation is to stop: to look, listen, sniff the air, and strain to pick up the hint, strain to hear the note . . . .




jeanne’s shoebox:

the wonderful jeanne a.e. devoto

danish outpost:

no idea how it made it into this list of things overheard in a bar...(*)

jon carroll columns:

i don’t know how my little dictum can become “applicable” in the way these columns imply, but maybe you can figure it out. a splendid guy, jon; i’d trust him with my life. but on the pragmatic reality end, wacky as all getout . . . .

i do have a few things to say now (16 april 2002)

how still we see thee lie (24 december 2001)

thank you, gray person (15 december 1998)

plus one reference fugitive: another column, a whole lot earlier (probably ’93 or thereabouts), was the first in which this little formula appeared. chronicle archives don’t go back that far; no idea where to find it.

and then there’s jon’s near life experiences, a great collection of columns, with the aforementioned misattribution (by the equally wonderful anne lamott).




(*) well, now i know, but it’s still pretty damn strange