It’s a word that comes up in conversations around the end of the year holidays. Hope. The word has gotten used a lot this whole COVID year, as in HOPE FOR A VACCINE!

Hope came up quite a bit in OPEN ADMISSIONS: WHAT TEACHING AT COMMUNITY COLLEGE TAUGHT ME ABOUT LEARNING, and it keeps showing up in these posts.

“We live in hope.” How many times have you wryly spoken those words when questioned about a wish that you realize may never happen? 

People in our region say it without irony if they live in nearby Hope, Maine—using the upper-case Hope, of course.

We all live in the hope of good things happening. If we could live in a magical land of hope, wouldn’t it be great to just walk through the door of its general store and start to fill your basket?

Hope matters in life. We know this. But hope is not exactly the same thing as optimism and we mustn’t confuse one for the other, as Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) tells us in Disturbing the Peace.

“It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

To playwright Havel, who spent time in prison for political activities—prior to becoming President of the former Czechoslovakia—it is pretty important stuff and it comes from somewhere other than inside our heads or our hearts.  

“… the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere.’ It is also this hope, above all, that gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

Author Havel believed he could go only so far in understanding its source:

I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are, though of course I can’t – unlike Christians, for instance — say anything about the transcendental. . . .

That’s Havel’s take.

Father Bud Grant pithily tells us that hope, in his Christian perspective, amounts to “lunging toward the God who will carry us through (not around) the worst.” Muscular theology there.

Believers of all stripes generally attribute hope’s source to a greater power, one’s heightened awareness, or some ineffable transcendence. I believe that many secular humanists and other non-religionists would say much the same.

Perhaps, as with the often-cited range of Eskimo (Innuit) terms for snow—is that really true?—we need greater vocabulary in order to be precise and nuanced when we refer to the variety of feelings we might mean when we use the H word. 

Psychologists, pastors, and poets alike recognize that hope can be powerful. For me, conversations about hope often bring to mind the story of 59-year-old Bob Cusick, the Marine Electric’s chief mate, who found himself alone in the wild Atlantic waters around four in the morning on February 13, 1983, after the worst storm in 40 years sent his ship to the bottom. Cusick kept himself going by singing the words to the late songwriter Stan Rogers’s “Mary Ellen Carter,” a defiant and rousing song about efforts to restore a sunken ship so that it could sail again.  

The verb “cling” often accompanies “hope” in our sentences. That seaman clung tenaciously to hope and to a partially deflated lifeboat. Life expectancy in waters like that is about fifteen minutes. He knew that, but he also remembered the song lyrics.

And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

But the chorus had to be what got to him.

Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken
Or life about to end.
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

When the waves rushed over, pushing him down, he had to hold his breath, but resurfacing he would belt out, “Rise again, Rise again.”

About three hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter spotted him and pulled him to safety. He was one of three survivors of the 33-man crew.

If somehow recalling the song, then even more improbably saying, shouting, SINGING those two words in gasps between waves wasn’t exactly a turning point in his life, it surely was a stabilizing one. It kept him on course. He talks about his escape from death in this link, followed by a live performance of the song by Rogers.

Cusick lived, remembered, and reached out to Stan Rogers to tell him the story, directly or indirectly thanking him. Captain Cusick died peacefully in 2013 at age 90.

Hope made a difference for Mr. Cusick.

Hope. Get it where you can. Give it whenever you can.

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