Hopelessness

July 2, 2004 | 36 comments
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I’ve mentioned before that I’m working on a paper on hope. That was, in fact, the topic of my first post (which I do not know how to find and, so, do not know how to refer you to—but it doesn’t matter). The truth, however, is that next month I’m presenting a paper on the loss of hope. Doing that required that I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about hope, and I’ve been writing about it. Now I’m down to the last one-third of my paper, and I’ve got to stop talking about hope and say something about its loss. Perhaps, dear readers, you can help me. I trust that my situation is not hopeless.

The short version of my long discussion of hope: hope is (1) a state of belief; (2) in that state one intends some good; one recognizes that (3) the good one intends is, to some degree, improbable and (4) that good is something that is not fully in one’s power, if at all. (And I must stop here for a note on the technical language of philosophy: as used here “intends” means something like “is directed at.” It doesn’t mean “does on purpose.” Sorry about that, but it’s a handy word.)

My question is, “What does it mean to be hopeless?” Hopelessness must be more than the absence of hope. When I’m bored, hope is absent, but I’m not hopeless. Hopelessness connotes a loss of hope rather than just an absence. So what gets lost in hopelessness? And how?

Let me lay some groundwork for the deluge of responses that I hope will follow: Medieval thinkers thought about hopelessness a lot, and they thought of it in a particular form: acedia (Latin) and wanhope (the waning of hope—English). It was one of the deadly sins, so it wasn’t just laziness (something that probably surprises you—hopelessness was understood to be a kind of laziness or sloth), it was slothfulness in virtue, not having the energy to be virtuous, for example, losing confidence in spiritual gifts such as prayer and, so, finding oneself unable to take part in them any longer. (For a good discussion of acedia as well as some interesting thinking about what it has to do with contemporary “critical distance” and “commitment to high ideals” see R. R. Reno’s essay in First Things.)

36 Responses to Hopelessness

  1. Ben Huff on July 2, 2004 at 1:50 am
  2. Eric C. on July 2, 2004 at 9:16 am

    I’m a long-time daily reader at T&S, but never post. No one having yet stepped up to the plate, as it were, I’ll give it a go.

    Wouldn’t hopelessness be an inverse of hope rather than an absence? Well, not a complete inverse, only that your criterion #2 has been replaced with an intention of some non-good (perhaps this is akin to dread or fear).

    On another note, why criterion #3? Why can’t the good one intends be merely uncertain rather than improbable? The Mudhens are a 2:1 favorite to win then big game. Can I still hope they win? Hope seems to me more about uncertainty and lack of control over outcomes.

    My $0.02.

  3. greenfrog on July 2, 2004 at 10:53 am

    Not much time today (or this weekend), but one thought in this vein:

    Saint Teresa de Avila wrote of a “dry” period in her spiritual life. San Juan de la Cruz wrote of the dark night of the soul. Both of them passed through that period and into a condition that they describe as quite rich. Reviewing their writings may shed some light on hopelessness. Of course, one can pass through affliction and remain hopeful. But my understanding of the texts we have of Jesus’ experience on the Cross suggests to me that a perfectly hopeful outlook is far from certain, even from the best of us. Perhaps there is some virtue to experiencing a loss of hope, and persevering nonetheless.

  4. Adam Greenwood on July 2, 2004 at 11:35 am

    GF,
    I believe you’re correct, but maybe we want to define ‘hopelessness’ as distinct from ‘loss of hope.’ As I see it, hopelessness is desiring that the good not be possible, because you don’t want to have to work toward it or you don’t have the emotional strength to see your hopes dashed again.

  5. Kristine on July 2, 2004 at 11:58 am

    One of the interesting things about this topic is how hard it is for people raised in the age of Oprah to think about hope and hopelessness in philosophical, rather than psychological terms. As soon as you say “despair,” I start thinking about depression. And there are plenty of folks who would argue that “acedia” was just a misunderstood symptom of a mood disorder.

    If one accepts even part of the current understandings of mental illness, it seems particularly cruel to define hopelessness as a sin. There are lots of studies that show people tend to have some baseline level of happiness that they gravitate to, so that even after the death of a spouse, say, a basically happy person will return to roughly the same level of happiness within several months, while a fundamentally unhappy person will tend to remain unhappy despite events like marriage or a promotion or whatever. “Unto him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken…” starts to sound like an apt description of human psychology, which nonetheless seems to leave a lot to be desired in the justice department.

    I think this subject gets at the spirit/personality/mind/brain junction in really interesting ways.

    Have you read Kathleen Norris’ bits about acedia in _The Cloister Walk_? Not philosophically rigorous, but interesting and lively writing.

  6. jonathan thomas on July 2, 2004 at 12:17 pm

    hopelessness is: darkness, inability to even imagine the face of the other, profound depression (suggesting, maybe, how Medieval thinkers could make a link between loss of hope and sloth), uncontrollable loss of intention, unbelonging, other than becoming, nothingness.

  7. William Morris on July 2, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    I think of hope as being closely tied to faith (and not just because of the ‘faith, hope and charity thing). That is, imo, hopelessness consitutes an inability to have faith that an agent (God, yourself, mankind) can bring about good or improvement. Or — that you will be able to partake of that good or improvement. Hopelessness, then, is a condition of stasis. I wouldn’t say it’s an absence so much as a suspension.

  8. somebody on July 2, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    I think Eric C’s does a good job of describing hopelessness. When I went through such a period, it was marked by apathy for both present and future and by increased sin. I felt beyond hope for Jesus to save.

  9. William Morris on July 2, 2004 at 1:08 pm

    Sorry that end should read “as a suspension of faith.”

    Or to put in another way — a paralysis of faith.

  10. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    A couple of quick responses before I get back to trying to write my paper:

    First, thanks for these. It is really helpful to read what others have to say. Thanks especially for some of the bibliographic suggestions.

    Eric C: I take “to some degree improbable” to mean the same thing as “uncertain.” I have several paragraphs in which I discuss the fact that one can hope for something that is likely to occur. The degree of improbability need not be greater than the degree of probability. What is necessary is only that in hope one recognize that there is a degree of improbability.

    Greenfrog and Adam Greenwood: I think that your point about the difference between states in which one experiences a loss of hope but perservers and states in which one is hopeless is interesting and helpful. I’m not sure, however, that the first is really one is an instance of a loss of hope. Does perseverance in such cases indicate continued hope? It may.

    Kristine’s point is relevant and important: loss of hope/hopelessness may be accompanied by a psychological state, but at least as they have been dealt with traditionally in philosophy, they aren’t necessarily the same. However, though I may misunderstand, I think that Kristine is more inclined to accept the contemporary tendency to identify acedia with psychological disorders than I am.

    Jonathan Thomas: I tend to agree with your characterization. I think I would connect the loss of hope with Angst as Heidegger and some of his followers have described it. In Angst, the nothing reveals itself. So also in the loss of hope. But for Heidegger Angst is the basic orientation in the world (translations use the word “mood,” but that can be misleading), an orientation that reveals human freedom. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is the difference between Angst and the loss of hope.

  11. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    William Morris: interesting idea, but if hopelessness is a paralysis of faith, why isn’t it called “faithlessness” or “loss of faith”? I don’t buy the method that insists that ordinary language necessarily points to real distinctions, but I do think we have to begin with its distinctions and ask whether they make sense.

  12. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    somebody: The connection of apathy to hopelessness is suggestive. Thanks.

  13. danithew on July 2, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    I once read something about hopelessness and wrote it down in my scriptures because it struck me as a valuable insight about a significant difference between children and adults. When I have access to the actual quote I’ll try and post it here.

    The gist of what I read is that children below the age of 7 or 8 years old do not experience feelings of utter hopelessness. That is, they don’t experience feelings of total despair where all is bad and they take the blame upon themselves. As a result, according to this author, children below the age of 7 or 8 NEVER commit suicide though there have been accounts of children at these ages or below killing others. Suicide and killing probably seem like pretty absurd and horrible topics to bring up when talking about the behavior of children — but still, this seems to be an interesting thought.

    Real feelings of total despair and hopelessness appear to be mainly the domain of adolescents and adults and NOT of children who are below the age of accountability.

  14. greenfrog on July 2, 2004 at 1:38 pm

    I’m not sure, however, that the first is really one is an instance of a loss of hope. Does perseverance in such cases indicate continued hope? It may.

    I agree that there is something to perseverance that can be understood as a persistent hope of some variety, but I think that sometimes hope can be lost, but commitment to right action can continue. In daily life, it is often true that the reason that we take particular actions is because we hope that they will yield some future fruit.

    But there is another way of living, one that does not look forward to a particular yield, but rather focuses on the rightness of action in the present. As I read the Bhaghavad Gita, this was Krishna’s recommendation to Arjuna.

    At least in that setting, abandoning “hope” of future things seems to lead to something rather different than what I think of as despair or hopelessness. While I’m badly mixing my religions, if not my metaphors, it is this attitude that I think of Jesus taking in the Garden and on the Cross.

  15. William Morris on July 2, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    Jim: Good point. In fact it makes more sense if I use ‘hopeless’ rather than ‘hopelessness’ (which isn’t common enough in the texts I read to get a good handle on its meaning in the context of discourse). What does it mean when someone says that a situation is hopeless? Does it mean that they are apathetic about it? I don’t think so. It means they can ‘see’ anyway for the situation to be remedied. It’s not apathy — in the sense of ‘not caring’ It’s a lack of faith that the situation can be changed — a paralysis.

    So I was thinking of the adjective rather than the noun. I think you’re right that the noun — hopelessness — means something different if we’re taking about ordinary language.

  16. William Morris on July 2, 2004 at 1:45 pm

    RE: Apathy. That makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been translating my favorite Kafka story “Ein Landarzt” which, naturally, has led me to pay much closer attention to the text than in previous readings. In it, a country doctor needs to go visit a patient that lives in an outlying village, but his horse has died. A pair of horses magically appears along with a groom. The groom is intensely interested in (sexually desires) the doctor’s servant girl (whom the doctor has barely noticed over the years) and refuse to accompany the doctor on the trip. The groom is able to give the horses a firm giddy-up! and they whisk the doctor to his patient’s house in a moment [time-distance compressed]. The doctor obsesses about his servant girl, realizing her value. He fails to heal the patient and is humiliated. He flees to his wagon and tells the horses to giddy-up, they began to move. But, of course, they don’t do the magic thing and if anything seem to move slower than a normal teams of horses would. The doctor despairs of ever getting home.

    This is all to say that while there are all sorts of other things going on in the story, a big part of it has to do with desire. The strong desire of the groom is opposed to the weak, late-found desire of the doctor. A desire so weak that it’s not operative. And the doctor during the course of the story expresses his situation in apathetic terms. So if hope is related to desire, then hopelessness is definitely related to apathy. And a state of hopelessness manifests itself as apathy — like what somebody describes.

  17. Kristine on July 2, 2004 at 2:07 pm

    Jim, I’m less sympathetic to the “it’s all serotonin uptake and/or your mother’s fault” approach than you might think. As I said, I think the question of hope/hopelessness points up the complicated interplay of psychology and philosophy and biology in interesting ways (even more than, say, the question of happiness or contentment does).

  18. Clark Goble on July 2, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    I think that a loss of hope certainly is, in its experienced phenomena, rather complex as Kristine suggests. It isn’t just not being able to conceive of some outcome as really possible. It is associated with other feelings of despair with respect to the given state of affairs. Yet I think we can feel a sense of hopelessness even without having some mental object regarding which we feel hopeless. That is, I can feel some task is hopeless, but the total despair and dread of hopelessness is something greater than this.

    It’s a tragic thing to see people or even animals when they’ve given up hope. It is the feeling that nothing one does matters. Fatalism cast into an existential arena which focuses ones attention onto it in such a negative fashion that ones entire system gets tuned to it.

    Glad I’ve never experienced it. I suspect there is a lot going on in the brain with respect to it though.

  19. Eric C. on July 2, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    I guess I’m afraid I don’t see the connection between hopelessness and apathy. Apathy is indifference and as such isn’t likely accompanied by things like despair. (Why despair over something I don’t care about i.e. impassivity)

    Rather, since hopelessness seems to many times be accompanied by despair and the like, isn’t hopelessness an active intention towards the non-good? I have somehow, perhaps unconciously, adopted a worldview that precludes the possiblity of good outcomes. That would certainly merit despair.

  20. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    Kristine, my apologies for my misunderstanding of your comment.

  21. danithew on July 2, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    Hope is a pretty essential component of human life. Without hope, some people/personalities become not only dangers to themselves but a danger to others.

    The adversary actually is in a position where his situation really is hopeless and as a result he is extremely dangerous — possessing a determination to drag as many others down as possible.

    I guess my point is that hope is what helps us to better ourselves but also to reach out to others in a positive way.

    After sharing that cheery note, I thought I’d leave a number of pick-me-ups from Marvin the manically depressed robot. Some of you may have read Douglas Adam’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galazy:

    “You think you’ve got problems, what are you supposed to do if you’re a manically depressed robot? No, don’t bother to answer that, I’m fifty thousand times more intelligent than you and even I don’t know the answer. It gives me a headache just trying to think down to your level.”

    “I’ve been ordered to take you down to the bridge. Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.”

    “Thank you marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetica Corporation, ‘Let’s build robots with Genuine People Personalities’ they said. So they tried it out with me. I’m a personality prototype. You can tell can’t you?”

    “Sorry, did I say something wrong? Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it, oh G-d I’m so depressed.”

    “Do you want me to sit in a corner and rust or just fall apart where I’m standing?”

    “Life, loathe it or ignore it, you can’t like it.”

    “Don’t feel you have to take any notice of me, please.”

    “Don’t pretend you want to talk to me, I know you hate me.”

    “I only have to talk to somebody and they begin to hate me. Even robots hate me. If you just ignore me I expect I shall probably go away.”

  22. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    Clark Goble, one way to deal with the point you make is to distinguish between hope and hopefulness, the former being a particular hope with a particular intention and the latter being the field in which the former can occur. We can make the same distinction between “hopeless” and “hopelessness.”

  23. danithew on July 2, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    Ack… once again as I go over the thread I feel like I interrupted the flow badly and didn’t provide very intellectual content. I need to be more careful in how I post. Sometimes I’m way too off-hand or casual in the way I approach things. My apologies.

  24. Carl Youngblood on July 2, 2004 at 5:37 pm

    Perhaps a good thought to add to this discussion is that the English word “hope” is not as good a word for what I think it refers to, as the word that Spanish and Portuguese uses: “esperanza” (or “esperança”). This has two equally-used meanings. One is much the same as what English speakers mean when they say “hope” either as a noun or a verb. The other means “to expect” (verb) or “expectation” (noun), or “to wait for.” For example, when you are waiting for the bus to arrive, you say, “I’m hoping for the bus to come.” When you say, “I hope one day to be a millionaire,” you use the same word as you would for “I expect one day to be a millionaire.” There are other words you can use to put greater emphasis on your expectation, but the connotation of expectation is already embedded in their word for hope. I think that this aspect of hope is lost in English. I think that it is a crucial part of the spiritual state we mean when we talk about hope.

  25. Jack on July 2, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    Can this be the same Jim F.? Are you elevating beliefs above practices by suggesting that “hope is a state of belief”? :)

    While on my mission I learned that the spanish verbs for “to hope” and “to wait” are almost identical. My guess is that there’s a similarity in latin. (someone here at T&S should know. greenfrog perhaps…?) At anyrate, perhaps we can equate hope with waiting upon the Lord. Maybe it’s a divine patience born of trusting in the Lord. It enables us to move/look forward cheerfully without knowing all things that we have yet to encouter. We hope for Eternal Life because we have assurances that it will be ours according to the covenants we have entered into with the Lord. I find it interesting that along with the promise of Eternal Life comes the gift of peace in this life. For me, peace and patience are closely tied.

  26. Jack on July 2, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    Oops! ‘Looks like you beat me to it Carl! And you said it much better than I did.

  27. Clark Goble on July 2, 2004 at 6:26 pm

    Jim, an other way to look at that is that hopelessness is the quality or feeling within the experience while hope as an intention always involves three entities – the feeler, the feeling, and that to which it is directed. We then have a two part entity as well in which the feeling does something. It has a force.

  28. Kingsley on July 2, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    But, Jack, “waiting upon the Lord” can surely be described as “a state of belief” as well. I think the key words are a state of, which imply much more than mere mental acquiescence.

  29. Kingsley on July 2, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    “When I’m bored, hope is absent, but I’m not hopeless. Hopelessness connotes a loss of hope rather than just an absence. So what gets lost in hopelessness? And how?”

    When I feel bored there are other exciting things I could be doing; when I feel hopeless there isn’t a possibility even of boredom. It is a state of despair that goes deeper than words can go. It is worse than horror. It is worse than depression, anger, sadness, physical pain. I think there are people who have gone mad rather than experience it one more time. One of the peculiarities of hopelessness is that, unlike other extreme states of being, it is almost impossible to imagine an insane person experiencing it. It is practical, sober, serious, simple, sane. It goes past suicide and other final forms of escape. Escape, like boredom, is an impossibility. It is so focused, so neat, so intensely compressed that you become paralyzed by it; and yet you don’t feel paralyzed; you could move, if you wanted to; if you could want. But you can’t want. You can’t conceive of the experience beginning or ending. If someone were to ask, “When did it start,” you would not understand them. If someone were to say, “It will end in five minutes,” it wouldn’t mean anything. Not that you’d disbelieve it—it simply wouldn’t mean anything. I used to think of the Savior’s ordeal in Gethsemane in terms of hours—How many hours was he in there? How many hours does it take to atone for the sins of the world? But then, when I became acquainted with hopelessness, I thought of the question as blasphemous.

  30. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 7:28 pm

    Carl Youngblood and Jack: Your argument seems to me to be something like this: Spanish and perhaps some other Romance languages doesn’t distinguish between hope and expectation. Therefore, there is no difference. I don’t speak Spanish, so I cannot say, but there may be some other way of making the distinction though they use the same word. Or it is possible that they don’t make the distinction. But it doesn’t follow that the distinction isn’t a valid one. And, by the way, it is a biblical distinction. Like English, Hebrew and Greek have different words for hoping and waiting.

    Jack: All the instances I could find of “wait for the Lord” or “wait on the Lord” in the Bible use words that mean “wait for” or “await.” The Book of Mormon uses, 2 Nephi 18:17 and Mosiah 21:34, seem to me to be the same, as does also the one Doctrine and Covenants use of the phrase, D&C 98:2. There may be a connection between admonitions to wait for the Lord to do his work or to come again, on the one hand, and hope, on the other, but the connection isn’t direct. I can command someone to wait without commanding them to hope that what they are waiting for will come to pass.

    And yes, it’s the same Jim F. who argues that practices rather than beliefs are fundamental. I’ve not argued that there are no beliefs, but that beliefs are a species of practice. So there’s no contradiction between that argument and my interest in hope.

    Kingsley: another way to describe your account of hopelessness is “the absence of possibility.” That’s one reason that I used boredom as my example: boredom is another case that can be described as the absence of possibility, but obviously it is different than hopelessness.

    And a belated thanks to Ben Huff for linking to my first post on hope.

  31. Kingsley on July 2, 2004 at 7:47 pm

    Jim F.: Evelyn Waugh had a real horror of boredom in that way, and described his horror(especially in his travel books) in prose that in places has the power to produce actual nausea in the reader, a phenomenon usually limited to gory physical rather than mental details.

  32. Kingsley on July 2, 2004 at 7:51 pm

    Not that boredom (like hopelessness) isn’t physical as well as mental.

  33. Jack on July 3, 2004 at 9:00 pm

    I think Alma ch.32 may shed some light on hope as it is presented in the scriptures. Alma seems to give a discourse that goes from a to z in terms of salvation. Using the planting of a seed as the starting point he then moves on to how to nurture the seed in order to make it grow. He speaks of looking forward with an eye of faith to one day plucking the fruit. He says that we must be diligent *and* patient in the process. In the very last verse he says that we will reap the reward of our faith, diligence, patience and longsuffering – and this is the clencher – “waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you”. The fruit IMO is the love of God as per Nephi. Thus we have a complete exposition of faith, hope and charity – hope being the element of waiting as per Alma.

  34. Ben Huff on July 6, 2004 at 12:39 am

    hey danithew, for someone like me reading through and feeling too overwhelmed with the serious topic to comment, it was really fun to read your Hitchhiker’s excerpts : )

  35. danithew on July 6, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    Hey Ben,

    I’m glad you enjoyed those quotes. I get a kick out of them.

    Sometimes it’s appropriate to break serious discussion with some humor but I just felt I came in at the wrong time with that one. I’m also trying to pay more attention to what people are actually discussing rather than just throwing my automatic reaction to the original post into the mix. Obviously that can be disruptive or be considered an inappropriate interruption of a flow of thought. So… that was part of the reason I was apologizing.

  36. Mark Abbott on February 14, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    I think of hopelessness as a state in which the person has reached the end of the seen/known/or experienced the exhaustion of all things that are percieved (or hoped for) to have been posibilities to deliver the person from whatever the trial/terror or negative circumstance they are in. Such as a person like Tom Hanks in the movie where he is shipwrecked on the desert island. Human nature is such that when we are in the midst of a bad situation we look for a way out and catagorically go through any and all ways our mind can come up with to escape. The apostle Paul desribed this state in his letter 2nd Corinthians 1:8-10, ” We were pressed beyond measure, above our strength to the point we despaired and wished to die, but this came on us to teach us that we should not trust in ourselves but rather to trust in God who raises the dead. Who delivered us from so great a death and still delivers and whom we trust will yet deliver. It is interesting to note that the Apostle describes being self reliant, failing, giving up hope, being delivered by God and then learning to trust when he can not see in a God that is faithful and deserves complete trust ( or hope ). It is interesting to read how Christians over the centuries have voiced hope in the face of immenant death or destruction even when NOT delivered.This would seem to me to represent the most pure manifestation of hope known. and thus hopelessness would ultimately be a aknowledged loss of faith.

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