Hope Is Not the Thing with Feathers

I've written about hope several times. It's a topic that fascinates me, and one I contemplate often. I've written about the relationship between hope and fear, where, according to Karen Marie Moning, hope strengthens and fear kills. I've also written about the two faces of hope—the uplifting one and the one that crushes us under the weight of disappointed expectations. But Gena Showalter gives us a whole new spin on an old topic. In her Lords of the Underworld series, as introduced in The Darkest Pleasure, she depicts Hope as one of the scourges of humanity, unleashed from Pandora's Box, and hosted by the most evil of the Lords of the Underworld.  Hope is a demon who, "purposely raises expectations, makes people believe there's a potential for a miracle, and then he crushes those expectations, leaving nothing but ash and despair."  Wow. Harsh. 

In case you don't remember your Greek mythology or your nineteenth century poetry, we'll have a brief refresher on both. In the myth, Zeus gave Pandora a beautiful box (jar, actually, but it was mistranslated in the 1600s), as a wedding gift, and told her not to open it. But, like Lot's wife, Pandora couldn't keep her curiosity in check, so she opened the box, and unleashed death, destruction, disease, misery and despair on an unsuspecting world. Pandora swiftly closed the box, keeping Hope inside, as an antidote to the demons she'd released.  Now, this whole story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, as releasing the demons loosed them in the world to plague humanity, but keeping Hope in the box preserved this slight amelioration for all. Confusing. But the gist is clear:  that in the face of terrible things, where there is life, there is hope, and where there is hope, not all is lost. Check.

With respect to the poetry lesson, Emily Dickinson taught us that "Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all."  There's more, and it's lovely, but you get the idea. Hope is a light and precious thing that elevates us all. Or so good old Emily wrote in the late 1800s. Check, check.

But what if they are all wrong, and Gena Showalter is right?  What if Hope is a demon from hell, discharged into the world to create the most evil of all? A particularly disturbing scene from the Game of Thrones series comes to mind. Theon, who has betrayed his foster family, the Starks, and committed atrocities beyond imagination, has himself bee captured and tortured. One night, a savior comes to rescue Theon, and lead him away from the house of horrors where he's been living. So Theon and his deliverer escape and ride for a couple of days. Theon is beyond relieved and grateful. He is full of hope that his escape will be successful and he will go home. But it turns out that his rescuer is none other than Theon's tormentor, who has posed as his rescuer to twist the knife more intensely. When Theon realizes that they've ridden back to the house of horrors and that his "rescuer" is his torturer, his spirit is irreparably broken. Which was the point of the exercise. It is so much more effective to crush someone's spirit after you've falsely raised their hopes. In this case, hope was an exceptionally effective weapon of total destruction.

Hope is a beautiful thing. Until it's dashed. Until we can no longer reasonably hope for anything good, when we cannot do anything but despair. Then Hope is the spawn of Satan, worse than cynicism, or being jaded or have low standards and lower prospects. Someone recently suggested to me that I'm afraid to become too attached to any desire, which is why I'm having trouble owning my shit and doing what needs to be done.  My friend said that I was taught at a young age that when I hoped for good things, those hopes were dashed so thoroughly that I lost my ability to hope. It's an interesting idea. And I hope it's not true.

My mother and I had a troubled relationship, as you know. To say the least, she did not encourage my hopes and dreams.  As a result, because I'm not an idiot, I learned quickly to keep my dreams to myself, and then to abandon them altogether. It was too painful to want things that were just for me, just for my joy and never get them.

But leaving aside my sad upbringing, it's also interesting to ponder the supposed sign on the gates of Hell, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."  What if that were wrong, and Satan uses the hope of salvation from the fires of Hades to torment sinners all the more. Then Gena Showalter would be right.

But I'm not ready to subscribe to Gena Showalter's view of the universe. I think we need hope, even if our hopes are thwarted. Hope gives us some time of happiness while we didn't think the worst. That might not, in the end, be worth the pain of disappointed dreams, but often it is. It's like Pascal's Wager:  God may or may not exist, but I can derive such comfort from believing while I'm on this mortal coil, that I might as well believe. If, when I die, it turns out I was wrong, well, then, that might suck, but I would have had the comfort while I lived. And if I were right, and this God cares about such things as belief, then I will have made points with the big guy—always a good thing. So, I'll continue to root for Karen Marie Moning and believe that hope strengthens and fear kills. I still like Gena Showalter's fantasy books, and her interesting premise. But I'm going to hope that in truth, she's wrong.