Hope is the thing with feathers.
So said Emily Dickinson in her beautiful, timeless poem.
Hope is great. Hope is fuel. Hope keeps us warm in a frigid wasteland where dreams go to die. Hope keeps us going even though everything before us seems bleak.
And when you’re a millennial writer trying to achieve your publishing dreams, pay the bills and accumulate some savings, have a social (and romantic) life, get enough sleep, take care of your body, and spend adequate quality time with your loved ones, hope is the only thing you can cling to in order not to drown.
A friend and I were having a chat recently where she voiced her very familiar anxieties.
“I wish we can at least have a glimpse of what the future holds, or at least have an inkling,” she said. “If we know there is a bit of reward there, we can still hold out and survive to see our fruits of labour. How do we know this is the right way we are going? What if in the end, everything was a fruitless attempt?”
Which is true. We can never know. Maybe life is just one big anxiety trip, and we’ll just have to live with that discomfort of not knowing or kill ourselves wondering about the outcome.
I think all we can hope for is that at the end of it all, we have lived a life we can be proud of. Instead of one where we are trapped in a dead-end job we don’t love and that doesn’t fill our soul, one where we went out and did the things we wanted and loved, things that made us grow in the direction we wanted to grow.
Hope is a double-edged sword.
There’s a danger in conflating hope with expectation.
Hope is the belief that you are headed towards something good. Expectation is the belief that your sacrifices entitle you to something good.
You feel like there is a huge gap between what you want and what you have, where you want to be and where you actually are, and that gap is what keeps you craning your neck for what’s on the other side, always dissatisfied with what you have and where you are.
I used to feel like after all the time and effort I’ve put in, after years of writing and honing my craft and studying the publishing industry, that I deserved to get what I want. To get multiple book deals, to be a successful author, to go on book tours and sit on author panels and have lines of readers at my book signing.
But just because we put in the effort doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we get our desired outcome. I expected to get what I want because I put in the effort, and it made me really miserable because I kept asking myself what i was doing wrong or not enough of.
That, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, is the problem with meritocracy. Because we celebrate the belief that those who work hard and are good enough achieve success, we also believe that the reverse is true – that if we fail or aren’t successful, that must mean we aren’t good enough or didn’t work hard enough.
New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks agrees. “The evil of meritocracy is that people who’ve achieved a little more than others are worth a little more than others,” he said in his TED talk.
Looking back, I was a pretty entitled little shit. I expected too much, and set myself up for massive disappointment as a result.
Hope is the light we need to turn on.
These days, I’m trying to focus on what I have instead of what I don’t, to find happiness where I am instead of expecting it to be round the corner, just out of my reach.
These days, I’m not aiming for happiness. Happiness is what we feel when we get what we want. It’s when we receive our paychecks, or when we score that promotion, that book deal, or tickets to the concert that sold out in minutes.
These days, I’m aiming for joy. Joy is when we feel gladness in our heart because we fully enjoy what we’re doing in the moment. Joy is when I discover a story after pursuing the thing that ignites my curiosity. Joy is when I’m so immersed in writing a scene I lose track of time. Joy is when I read a book that moves me to tears or makes me miss my stop. Joy is when I watch The Mummy for the eight millionth time and it still doesn’t disappoint (look, campy or not, it’s a fun cinematic adventure and justifiably a cult classic).
Sometimes we get so caught up chasing happiness that we lose sight of what brings us joy.
Hope and joy seem to go hand-in-hand. Because we have hope, we find joy. If we start trying to reach for happiness, we come to expect too much of what life can give us at any given moment.
Maybe it can be as simple as being present, doing more of the things that bring us joy and shutting out the voices that tell us we need more than that.
Maybe with hope, that’s how we can reclaim that piece of ourselves that has been worn down over the years by life and all its practicalities and demands.
Maybe hope is our steadfast friend, our only ally, one that will see us through till the end without, like Emily Dickinson said, asking a crumb of us.