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Desperate Hope: A Phenomenology

For Mae Ann

It is the stillest words that bring on the storm.
Thoughts that come on doves' feet guide the world.


Initially and for the most part, to hope is to wish. When I say that I hope that. . . , I then usually mean that I would like. . . to happen. Such a wish for something to happen is the wanting for something unreal to be made real: because wishing can no longer be wishing if it did not wish for something yet unreal to be made real lest it merely be an empty (declarative) statement. Hope as wishing then exposes itself as nothing other than an experience of lack. I do not have. . . , and so I hope or wish that I have it. At bottom, wishful hope is also hopeful will, that is to say, I will something to happen.

The ambiguity of such a hopeful willing is that in its experience of a lack it also knows what would particularly fill up that lack and occupy that emptied space. In the first place, to be able to wish for something in particular already indicates that such a something has been identified as that which could fulfill the experienced lack. That is to say, I can only wish for something because I am already certain that possessing the wished object or heightening what I already possess through it will consequently cancel my experience of lack. Phenomenologically put, hope as wish is conditionally made possible by a lived experience of consciousness of a specific lack.

Wishing knows perfectly what it wants because it knows perfectly what it does not have--and it thus wishes to cease the difficult experience. For instance: I wish for money (because I do not have it) or for more money (because I do not have enough of it). And since money--and all objects which stand under money--is absolute in the sense that it can be qualified quantitatively, the wish then is able to quantitatively qualify what and how much it wants to possess and in doing so sets the standard and criteria in advance against which any consequent possession (success) or failure of possession (bankruptcy) is to be measured--in an absolute way. I either absolutely do get or do not get what I wished for; the experienced lack will likewise either continue or cease.

In sum, to hope as to wish inevitably hinges upon the intentional will (knowledge) and the absolute resolve (will) of the wisher. Behind the wish then hides a plan that the wisher himself designs that he either follows to the end or ultimately abandons. Either way, the wish ultimately falls unto the wisher's own hands--he does not yet allow anything outside himself to have a hand in the possible cessation of the experienced lack. Such self-wishing is at bottom self-willing and as such is enclosed to itself. But hope does not dwell in closed spaces.

If self-wishing is only able to wish because it experiences a self-lack, what then is another experience which does not fall squarely on the hands of the self-wisher but is able to allow him who hopes to be exposed to something other than itself? Or in other words, how can hope no longer as self-wishing enter the open field before which a now opened up ego stands? To be sure, there are those experiences which allow hope to enter the limits of the ego: an example of this experience is the arrival of love--a love the ego does not deserve even if it wishes for it. But hope does not usually present itself in gifts (undeserved and from without) which open up the ego (to receive or to reject it); hope, if it does arrive, arrives only too late after the arrival and reception of the gift, that is, with the loss of the gift.

It is in experiences of great loss where hope is first made possible. Because in a great loss the opened-up ego no longer only experiences a lack from within but already for the first time experiences a loss of that which it ambiguously did not actually possess but it nevertheless enjoyed--or loved. A great loss is not a lack in that a lack is concerned with itself while a loss is concerned with itself in relation to an other than itself. The loss of what was received from without is the absolute severance of the relationship the ego had with an alter-ego. For instance, the fragile love that the complete ego had wholly given to or had gratefully accepted from the complete alter-ego is here irretrievably cut in a great loss--irretrievably because loss is only real loss when it can never again be gained as a rope that was cut can never again be the same rope or as a shattered mirror can never again be the mirror that it was.

No one hopes while one enjoys the other who arrived as a gift--on the contrary. Hope is first made possible by the loss of the gift. How so? Because it is in real loss that the ego first finds itself without a will and without knowledge of what to do now that it has no will. The ego then finds itself "at a loss" because it here first experiences itself as will-less, unable to make up for itself what it has lost and finally unable to replace the one gift which is now lost forever. In a word, hope first is made possible in the experience of despair.

That I despair, however, does not necessarily lead to I hope. But for hope to be real hope, I must necessarily first experience real despair. Why the requirement? Because if I do not pass through real despair with its sorrow and grief, its ignorance and uncertainty, or its total darkness, I then cannot really imagine what hope can mean and bring. That is to say, hope cannot be hoped for in its full measure and weight if despair is not experienced in its opposite but equal measure and weight. If I am able to "shrug off" or easily "strike off" or merely "absorb" the loss, it may in reality bring me to the temptation of despair for a while but it does not necessarily make me suffer the loss as loss. In other words, I may despair at the moment of loss, make me think for a while and ponder the worth of what was lost but I may quickly forget it without giving hope the time to arrive.

When despair, that "most uncanny of guests," knocks on the door of a suddenly abandoned and dark room, I may permit it to enter or I may refuse to welcome it. The admittance of despair: to admit the loss and confront it, that is, to go under it or to suffer it. The refusal of despair: to deny the loss by turning away from it and to disqualify the loss as loss as if nothing was lost. Or again: the acceptance of the loss is entertaining despair's arrival by first opening the door for that darkest of visitors; while the refusal of the loss is staying in the dark room alone and closing the eyes so that darkness cannot be seen--like Oedipus plucking out his eyes so he may no longer see the world he could no longer understand.

Loss is the cleared space that darkness can flood and may occupy. Despair is that unbound darkness filling up the loss, doubling the empty space with its own infinite vacuity, and eclipsing all possible light leading to the total loss of all visibility even if the eyes are left wide-open. The welcome arrival of despair: the decision to buttress the whole weight of the loss and to not lose sight of the absence that now negatively stands for what was lost. And hope, here finally first made really possible with the acceptance of loss, is the decision to see through the dark light of despair--even if nothing can now be seen or even if nothing shall ever be seen.

Hope is first made real in real despair. Why such the contradiction? Because in order for the light of hope to arrive, the darkness of despair must first reach its deepest black or become that than which nothing darker could be seen. That is to say, I must experience the greatest possible suffering, reach my mortal limits and even hyper-extend them, or even be tempted to "settle all accounts" and "call it quits" in order to stop any further loss; that is to say, I may commit suicide. Suicide, however, is not the peak of despair but only its herald: there is still a strong and willful volition in the suicide, a resolve that goes against itself, but a resolve nonetheless. True despair, in contrast, has nothing to do with any willing, any volition or any resolve. Because this precisely is what despair is: the absence of will, its abandonment, its death.

The will's death not only deprives the desperate any strength or power but also deprives him of all life and soul. We see this all-too often: the desperate are not those who desperately hold on to anything in arm's way with their last ounce of energy (most of the time doing harm to it like a drowning man who pulls down the swimmer that rescues it). The desperate are those who no longer even have the power to kill themselves. All that they can do--or the most they can do--is to wait it out and last the time; and even such a blank waiting requires all their effort. Despair: the loss of all ability to even despair--or hope. It can be said that they are the walking dead.

But the walking dead still walk, that is, they are still alive. They may be silent but they silently wait. Wait for what? Precisely: for hope to arrive. That real hope is only first made possible in real despair means that hope is despair's twin, that hope can only come to those who know what despair means, or that hope is precisely despair turned to itself without turning its back to despair. To hope is to despair. Desperate hope: this means to still walk even when there is no sure footing, to still see even in the dark, to still love even in the irretrievable absence of the beloved.

But how could desperate hope be real hope and not mere blind optimism or arbitrary willing? Desperate hope is not blind optimism because it no longer knows what and from where such a hope may come--or even if it does or does not come. Blind optimism is still hopeful wishing; the belief that "everything will turn out fine" is the last thought that enters the mind of a desperate man. Actually, he does not think of anything any longer--except his despair. And desperate hope is also not an arbitrary act because such a hope does not know what it is doing anymore nor does it do anything at all. Such an empty act is not even an act springing from a decision as if the decision to not decide decides anything. On the contrary, hopeful despair is that very admission that no decision can end despair and usher in hope. To be sure, hope's arrival and with it despair's departure can and may be wished for at the beginning of suffering; but desperate hope knows little by little and only too well that all such wishing is vain and the point is to not wish and then decide in order to act but to not act, decide and to not wish at all. Then what does desperate hope know and do?

Despair knows and can only do one thing: nothing. But hope, hope knows everything as it also can do everything. That hope passes through the ignorance and weakness of despair means that in losing all possibilities--all hope--a possible new hope then is able to bring with it other possibilities, that is, new possibilities. Because the loss of hope is also at the same time the reception of a new one: I can only receive everything anew if I am able to abandon all that I had as I can only live again if I experienced my death. Hope teeters on the sharp edge of life and death, it draws the fine line between sorrow and happiness, it marks the twilight of dark despair and the dawning of a new light which can only come after the experience of night. This is why hope is nothing fanciful or dramatic or life-changing: it is as silent as a rising sun. And those who know what despair means know that all it can do is wait out the night in the hope that a new sun may arrive. To wait in hope: this does not add anything or invert despair because such waiting still knows nothing (of what it waits for and when what it waits for will arrive if it does arrive) and can do nothing (but wait). To be sure, hopeful waiting can turn out to be a waiting in vain. The poverty of waiting is the very poverty of hope: it cannot expect anything and more often than not what is waited upon (happiness, a new love, another chance) never does arrive. For most of the time, "Men die," as Camus said, "and they are unhappy."

Yet hope, since it is despair itself, is indifferent to whether or not what is hoped for does arrive in whatever form. Hope does not have anything--and so it cannot lose anything anymore by waiting and hoping some more. Or better: hope necessarily has only one thing it calls its own: its despair. But it is that despair which it offers without wanting to get rid of it from itself. Hope offers its own despair as a sacrifice--a sacrifice that it itself is, an offering which offers nothing (possession) and everything (itself). To sacrifice is to hope that the despair I experience is not lost in my own loss but may be offered to an other. But what kind of offering is such a sacrifice that offers its loss to an other? Or more importantly put, what kind of other is this which receives the loss which is offered to it as if it delights in the suffering it receives? Strictly speaking, nothing is given or received in such a sacrifice--as hope likewise is not hopeful and remains desperate. Then what is given and received?

In the sacrifice of suffering, what I really do is surrender myself. That is to say, in maintaining my hope without diminishing my despair even and most importantly when dark despair only gets darker, what I really do is surrender myself to an other who may come and accept my gift of surrender and possibly also suffer with me or even suffer for me. Because hope knows that it cannot hope for and by itself. In sacrificing its despair in a surrender of itself without remainder, hope precisely hopes that an other may arrive and receive it--to catch it falling, to allow it to enter his light, and to even possibly love what it can no longer love and even despises.

Hope is despair with a difference--it is despair that may have lost all hope from itself but in that very loss it allows itself to hope for an other who brings all new possibilities that it can no longer give itself in its despair. The other and his possibilities allow hope to be real: to become knowledgeable and able to act once again; the other brings hope as it brings it new possibilities. Alone, desperate hope could have easily extinguished itself in suicide when it could still turn its will against itself. But hope is received from the other to whom hope sacrifices its despair, life is received from the other to whom hope offered its death, and finally, hope's darkness may be overcome by a different light that only a Thou who finally loves me can give.



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