I am a regular reader of Oliver Burkeman’s Saturday Guardian column, This Column Will Change Your Life. I haven’t noticed any changes in my life as a result, but his columns certainly give me fodder to ruminate on for the rest of the week.
Last Saturday Burkeman wrote a piece against hope. His argument was that hanging on to hope can actually make us feel worse. The whole debate was triggered by some German statistics published in The Economic Journal, which concluded that reaching retirement age for the unemployed brought them considerable life satisfaction, as those people were finally delivered of the hope of finding a job, which was causing unhappiness in the first place. Similarly, says Burkeman, in trauma, people who lose their jobs take longer to recover than those who were widowed, presumably because widowhood is irreversible: a widow(er) may find happiness again but you cannot bring your loved one back to life so you may as well give up.
I believe the implication is that when there is no hope of changing a situation, we have no choice but to accept the status quo and get on with life, whereas hope, like a carrot dangling from the stick, can string you along for miles on an unforgiving, arid path, which may not even lead to any oasis. Philosophically speaking this makes sense because hope is always linked to an occurrence that may or may not happen in the future. When you let go of hope, you automatically start living in the now, being fully present. It can only be liberating.
Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now , would say this is the only way to live, as would many other spiritual teachers out there. It is a way of life I personally believe in and try to practise on a daily basis. But I have been struggling to accept how anyone can possibly live without hope when it comes to love and relationships.
If you are not in a relationship but you would like to be, it is only natural for one to hope meeting someone special, who will make you feel butterflies in your stomach. Or if you are in a relationship but it is stifling you, or for whatever reason it no longer makes you happy, you hope to find an alternative exit route, or a more suitable relationship. Don’t you?
If Fate was a clairvoyant you could actually speak to, and he or she told you there will never be another relationship in your life, how many of us would be able to carry on?
The promise of love and companionship is often the fuel that keeps us going for one more day, one more week, month or year. Having that promise taken away…would that not be tantamount to being told by your doctor that you have terminal cancer and only months to live? Isn’t love the oxygen that keeps us alive, be it love for life, love for the self or love for others? Aren’t we humans made to seek love from the moment we’re born? Isn’t love the purpose of life?
I applaud those who are so self-sufficient, or so enlightened, they couldn’t give a monkey’s whether they have a partner in life or not. I can hear them saying that the most important relationship of all is that with oneself, all the others are ancillary to that one, and they are absolutely correct about that.
But the majority of us still want to embrace that hope for a relationship with another. Even if we know it may not necessarily improve the quality of our lives, or bring us the happiness we imagine it will. True happiness must be found within, that much I know, and I am not so deluded that I fantasise Prince Charming and I walking hand-in-hand towards the sunset in some dramatic happy-ever-after finale. No. Prince Charming will keep me awake at night with his loud snoring and fart liberally under the duvet when familiarity sets in. He will drive me nuts by leaving the toilet seat up, splatter the bathroom sink with dried-up toothpaste, and God forbid he leaves dirty socks scattered all over the bedroom floor, as my ex used to do. We may row about silly things, and sulk for hours, we may even slam doors on each other from time to time, who knows.
The mention of these things brings back memories of my married life (I am separated now) and reminds me of how tough life as a couple can be. But even those daily irritants would have been significantly more tolerable, even ignorable, had there been mutual understanding between us on an emotional and an intellectual level.
I guess it is that understanding we crave for: being with a person to whom you need to say two words and they get four, or six, or eight. Or no words at all, as silence is also a form of language. Long-term couples that know each other well hardly need to speak to sense each other’s wishes, approval or disapproval.
I am not a desperate, lovelorn woman. I love my life as a single woman, I love my own company. I can spend days on end at home without speaking to a single soul and feel perfectly content with life. But, had I been told by Fate to abandon hope, as there will never be another great love in my life, I would probably quit my job tomorrow and go work for an animal charity in the wilderness of some African country, as Jane Goodall did; I have always wanted to be a zoologist anyway. If Fate will deny me love among humans, I shall seek it within the animal world.
Communication among animals, and with animals, is free of the background noise that exists in human communication and, for that reason, much purer, much clearer. When your dog wants food, it tells you it wants food; when it needs a pee, it will tell you it needs to get out of the house; when it is in pain, it will whine and tell you it is hurting. Animals never lie, or feign to be okay when they are not, or vice versa.
Our problem is that we only show others what we want others to see/hear. Yet I know some people are so “present” in their communication, they can see through your mask and hear you through the noise. They will sense your true love and will love you back for you, not for the roles you play in the theatre of life.
Maybe these are the people who had to let go of hope. Perhaps they stopped believing there was anything better to look forward to in tomorrow’s programme and started paying attention to what was available here and now.
I have watched animal documentaries on TV talking about sound frequencies that cannot be captured by the human ear, as when bats navigate in the dark. If there was a way we could recalibrate our ears, we would probably start hearing a myriad of wonderful sounds that are beyond our human reach.
Finding a special someone, who speaks your language and completely “gets” you, may also be a matter of recalibrating our hearts to be more in tune with theirs. That way we will be less blind and less deaf in case our paths cross theirs.
They say special ones are often much closer to home than you imagine. Or hope.
Yes, HOPE. Always.