The “audacity” of hope

Mark Stephens ponders whether our large hopes for big solutions to global problems might be pointers towards transcendence.

“Hope is dangerous thing. Drive a man insane.”

So says the inmate Red in the 1994 classic prison film, The Shawshank Redemption. Despite Red’s hard-bitten cynicism, the film is an affirmation on the power of hope. Indeed, towards the end of its story, Red’s former fellow-inmate, Andy Dufresne, writes to Red to tell him: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Seeing as just about everybody has seen this film, it’s no spoiler alert to recall that Red’s hopes do not disappoint. He finds his freedom in a final scene on the beach with Andy.

I’ve been thinking much about hope of late. Who knows precisely what stage of grief we have entered in this long, long year? But whatever we name the stage, the language of hope remains ever-present. We hope it ends soon. We hope the not-yet-fully-confirmed vaccine works. We hope to travel overseas again. We hope. There is something magnificently courageous about the indomitable power of hope, or the “audacity” of hope as Barack Obama put it.

But even the cynical version of Red had a point. If we believe the idea that hope will never disappoint, it might well drive us insane. Whilst the activity of hoping springs eternal, the objects of our hope mostly cannot offer guarantees. Our hopes for so many things – for triumph over death, for personal fulfillment, for global justice, seem larger than human capabilities. This is not to denigrate our important, yet fragile, movements towards a goal. But our large hopes for big solutions seem more like pointers towards transcendence, directing us beyond ourselves to consider whether there might be something, or someone, that makes sense of our desires and gives permanent comfort to our hopes.