When I walked out of the theater after seeing Avengers: Infinity War, my mind was reeling from the final scenes of the movie (fair warning: spoilers ahead). The Avengers spent the entire movie trying to prevent Thanos from wiping half of the population from the earth only to fail in their mission at the very end of the film. The unthinkable happened and Thanos won. We’re so used to the heroes coming through in the final moments and succeeding despite all odds. We expect them to save the day. That’s why the ending of Infinity Wars was so jarring. We didn’t see the ending coming (at least, I didn’t). What is there left to hope in when the unthinkable has happened? How do you hope when the good guys don’t win?
The ending of the movie made me ask: How do we continue to hope even when the odds are stacked against us? How do you keep fighting when the outcome you fear the most also seems like the most likely outcome? Is it even possible to hold onto hope when the worst happens like it did in The Avengers?
Conditional vs. True Hope
These questions reminded me of a recent workshop focused on helping individuals with terminal illnesses cultivate hope in their lives. The presenter described two different perspectives on hope. The first, called “conditional hope,” only expects our preferred outcome. And, as you can guess, this can sometimes backfire on us, especially in the case of illness. The reality is that sometimes people don’t beat cancer and sometimes we lose those closest to us. This kind of hope is essentially optimism. The second type of hope, on the other hand, is grounded in an individual’s relationship with Christ in a way that transcends any physical or earthly experience. Life is composed of happy and sad times, good and bad times, peaceful and stressful times, but the one thing that remains consistent through these changes is God and his love for us. Hoping in his love and his promises can sustain us in those dark and tough times.
In his book, The Catholic Guide to Depression, psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty talks about the importance of the virtue of hope when it comes to treating depression. He even goes so far as to describe hope as “the ultimate foil against depression” because of its “life-changing” power. When we hope in a better future, he says, we have a reason to live and that can help provide an antidote to depression. And, as Christians, we have a unique perspective on the future. We believe and hope in the promise of the resurrection: eternal life. Authentic hope is seeing beyond the present moment and believing in the greater plan God has. Kheriaty describes hope as placing our trust in God and his promise for eternal happiness.
The difference between the hope that everything will turn out okay in the end and the virtue of hope is that the virtue of hope directs our focus to God’s plan for us. Throughout any trial in life, God is there with you, walking alongside you, and loving you. Illness and death isn’t the end because of our belief in the Resurrection and God’s plan for eternal happiness for us. This understanding goes much deeper than a surface-level and Pollyana-esque expectation that nothing bad will happen. It helps us sustain hope even when it seems like the worst is happening whether it takes place in a movie franchise or in our own lives.
Hope in the Most Trying Circumstances
Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) is a heartening example of what it means to hope in the midst of trying circumstances. Not only was she exposed daily to unbelievable amounts of physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering in the people that she served, but she also lived through a “dark night of the soul”. While this is different from depression, she did not feel God’s presence or love for a long period of her life. Despite this darkness, she sustained hope in God’s love and plan for her and her order. Her testimony is a powerful one; she clung to hope when her spiritual life seemed dark and when she was surrounded by “the poorest of the poor”.
Of course, we can (and should) still hope for the best outcome but we also shouldn’t lose our hope if our preferred outcome doesn’t materialize. I realize that this is easier said and done, especially in the face of mental and physical illness, grief and loss, and whatever other trials life sends our way. But hoping in God’s love, his mercy, and his promise that our lives are much more than the struggles of life on earth, can give you the courage to persevere even in the face of the worst happening or when you are feeling lost in life.
I’m reminded of the well-known Mr. Rogers quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” In the midst of suffering and uncertainty, we can turn to our support network (that includes God, family, friends, and the saints) to help us look at our lives with eyes of hope.