Hope or despair?

Given that anicca, or impermanence, and change, are primary conditions of existence – the potential for things to get better or worse is inherent in each moment. The future grows out of the present and the past, and our attitudes, intentions and actions now will help, in some way, to determine what kind of future will emerge.

Let us keep in mind that the dictionary definition of ‘hope,’ combines the sense of ‘expectation’ and ‘desire.’ These two aspects go together – we desire that something will happen, and we expect that it will. What connects desire and expectation is intention, aspiration and action. If our collective desires and expectations are translated into intentions and actions, then our hopes may be realised. If not, we may well be disappointed.

The fact that most people, hundreds of millions of people across the world, live together in peace gives me hope. Whatever is said about human beings being innately selfish, competitive and destructive, the actual evidence of the generally peaceful, tolerant and kind communal behaviour of the vast majority of people, suggests to me that human beings are, in the main, innately sociable, cooperative and kind. This gives me hope that the minority of people who behave selfishly and unkindly can be educated and encouraged to rediscover their innate sociable and peaceful nature. Certainly, the Buddha seems to have taken this view and his life’s work could be seen as an attempt to help those who are deluded, greedy and angry, to rediscover the kindness, wisdom and peace that is hidden within them.

No doubt, we are all born with a predisposition towards optimism or pessimism, towards hope or despair, but while recognising and accepting that our predisposition leans one way or the other, we have a choice as to whether we identify with this tendency and succumb to it, or whether we learn to think and act in ways that transcend our predispositions. A predisposition towards pessimism, can be overcome by learning, and by making a conscious choice to act with optimism. When times are bad, we need to keep in mind that we can focus on small good things to help us keep going. Also, when times are good, it is always wise to keep in mind that the good times may not last forever. Pie-in-the-sky over-optimism can be as unhealthy and damaging as Eeyore-ish permanent pessimism – delusion can take many forms. Peace of mind comes from keeping a balance between over-optimism and over-pessimism, and always remaining open to changes of fortune as they swing one way, then the other.

In my case, my family will know that while I sometimes give the impression of being pessimistic, deep-down I have a predisposition towards hope and optimism – I tend to prepare for the worst but feel optimistic about the future. These are tendencies that I recognise in myself, the result of innumerable causal conditions (karma) that gave rise to me. But whether, or not, I identify with the tendencies towards hope or despair within me, is a matter over which I have some choice. There will be times, as with any human being, when either hope or despair gets the better of me, when I lose my balance and become overly despondent or unwisely hopeful. The Buddha advocated a ‘middle way’ – a view of life that is balanced, realistic and practical.

Buddhists and Daoists tend to take the view that the natural or innate qualities of human beings are benign. The vast majority of people have an aptitude that is balanced towards tolerance, friendliness, selflessness and cooperation, rather than intolerance, unfriendliness, selfishness and competitiveness. These latter qualities are unnatural, out of balance – the result of delusion and insatiable desire. The ancient Daoist and Buddhist writers, ascribe this imbalance towards negative qualities, as being the result of harmful social conditioning and misguided beliefs and ideology. To return to a natural, balanced state of mind, we need to let go of, or unlearn, these harmful habits and delusions. Meditation, zazen and other practices are the means by which this rebalancing can be achieved.

Many people would argue that this is too benign a view of human nature, given that as a species, we seem unduly prone to aggression, selfishness and competitiveness. But Daoist sages like Laozi and Zhuangzi, well aware of the warring competitiveness of their fellow human beings – often describing the social turmoil and conflicts of their own time in their writings – nevertheless suggest that this is largely caused by a minority of individuals and groups who have turned away from their natural condition, lost their balance and find themselves in the grip of forces of greed, anger and delusion. They have lost their way, and lost the Way, the Dao. However, the potential to return to the way of nature – their natural state of balance – is always present in everyone, no matter how far they have strayed, or how deluded and violent they have become. Through contemplation, non-attachment and study they can return to the way of harmony.

The American philosopher and social activist, Naom Chomsky writes: ‘Since oppression and repression exist, they are reflections of human nature. The same is true of sympathy, kindness, and concern for others …. The task for [society] is to design the ways we live and the institutional and cultural structures of our lives, so as to favour the benign and to suppress the harsh and destructive aspects of our fundamental nature.’ (2017: 194) This seems to echo the Buddha’s own views as articulated in the early Pali texts. The second-century Indian Emperor, Ashoka attempted to put his Buddhist principles into practice by developing a society that was built on an optimistic and hopeful view of human beings as being kind, cooperative and peaceful. His reign is regarded as a largely benign and peaceful period in Indian history.

As a final thought, I would like to quote what Noam Chomsky (2017: 196) says at the end of his recent book, Optimism over Despair: ‘We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.’


Chomsky, Naom. 2017. Optimism over Despair. London: Penguin. (p.196)