The relationship between hope and time

by The Editor

ARTICLE: You don’t often think about it this way but hope is actually all about how you understand time. If you have hope, with it you have perspective and the idea that the future might be better. In the other direction, if one has no hope, there is no prospect of a better future and so time and perspective are reduced to contemporary concerns. There is only the here and now and the need to overcome the challenge that currently exists right before your eyes.

The relationship between hope and time

By: Gareth van Onselen

21 June 2012

There exists a curious relationship between the idea of hope and the passage of time.

Consider, by way of illustration, the question: ‘What is it to live in absolute poverty?’

Certainly it is a wretched existence.

Self esteem is depleted, opportunity diminished and the future reduced to a source of despair, stripped of hope or anticipation. Likewise, the past becomes a matter of supreme indifference, for it holds few lessons upon which those more fortunate are so often able to build a better life, and little in the way of reflective comfort. Any contrast with the here and now becomes meaningless: yesterday and today become the same thing – the latter by no means a favourable point of comparison, from which one might otherwise draw inspiration for the prospect of a better tomorrow.

There is only the present, painful and constant, its many limitations largely unnoticed, such is the acute necessity simply to survive.

In this cruel way, despair distorts the passage of time. It merges the past and the future with the present. And, in doing so, it denudes hope of its greatest attribute: perspective.

An ability to gauge one’s position in life, to have a sense of momentum and purpose, to be able to draw on the past to better shape the future, is intrinsic to how one views tomorrow. Inevitably, if one’s life is broadly defined by advancement and betterment, whatever lies ahead becomes a far more appealing prospect. Time stretches out into the distance. Whereas, in the other direction, if one’s life is in decline, perspective becomes a source of despair, not hope. And time comes to an abrupt halt.

The same logic can be applied to a society more broadly. One can say much about a society that is able to hope to draw from it inspiration. It is an indication that it has a vision, and a collective memory that it is able to call upon, in order that it might dream.

And here its leader’s have a special responsibility: to give tomorrow shape and form. For real hope must be believable; indeed, that is where its great power resides – and to be that, it must be realistic in turn. Thus, leaders often quantify hope, through targets or goals. These act not only as motivation but markers in time, so the future is clearly mapped out and even the unknown brought into relief.

In contrast, a society in decline is marked by inertia, as time shrinks its perspective solely to the here and now. It has no vision or purpose outside of best managing the status quo. The decisions of its leaders are marked by self interest and it deals primarily in false hope: vague abstractions that are not grounded in what is reasonable and measured, but rather in what will best appease current discontent.

And this is despair’s cruelest trick. Once it has you wrapped in its cloak, it is strangely comforting. Hope becomes contemporary, practical and not ideal; instantaneously realised and disregarded at the same time. In short, hope becomes despair.

If the illusion is to be broken, the key lies in restoring hope to its rightful place: a beacon in the future, towards which a society willing moves.

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