What if 2021 is no better than 2020? What then?
The experience of American prisoners of war says: even if 2021 is no better, we can still be okay. But we will only be okay is if we don’t expect our circumstances to be okay.
That sounds odd, doesn’t it. Surely people need to expect good things. Surely we need to believe in a better time ahead. Surely people need hope.
And we do need hope. The challenge is that while people need hope, we don’t need false hope.
False hope works like the real thing at first. It focuses us on a goal, and motivates our action. It steels our resolve in the face of difficulties.
Without Hope, We Die
Without hope, people die. Scripture tells us “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Pr. 29:18, KJV). The experience of US POWs during the Vietnam conflict starkly demonstrates both that truth and the devastating impact of false hope based on unrealistic vision.
Several thousand US servicemen were taken prisoner during that conflict. Only 591 returned home, after having endured many years of torture, starvation and solitary confinement. James Stockdale, a US Navy Vice Admiral who held as a POW for nearly 8 years, says it was the optimists who died.
He told author Jim Collins: “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
False Hope is a Killer
“There was a lot of damage done by optimists,” Stockdale told a graduating class at West Point. “Problem is, some people believe what professional optimists are passing out and come unglued when their predictions don’t work out.”
The optimists in the camps lived on false hope that they would be liberated within a specific time frame. As their false hope was repeatedly dashed, they found themselves on an emotional roller coaster of desires and wishful thinking that, in Stockdale’s opinion, eventually caused them to lose their ability to hope and their reason to live.
Stockdale saw in his comrades who survived the same hope that they would eventually be freed. But the survivors grounded their hope in a realistic understanding of the brutal setting they would have to survive. As he told Collins: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
COVID Has Wrecked Many Hopes
COVID has become a crucible for the quality of our own hopes. Career advancement, Pinterest-perfect homes, honor roll students … these hoped-for and worked-for goals have been snatched from our reach. Hopes that seemed entirely reasonable before the virus reached the US have become, during the pandemic, impossible expectations. “I hope to see my out-of-state friend over the holidays.” “I hope to succeed in my new career.” “I hope to be by my mother’s side when she dies.”
Many of the objects of our hopes have been snatched beyond our reach at this time. And some of us are all too aware that the opportunity missed today can become the fork that changes the path of a life. It becomes difficult to hope when we can’t see a reliable future.
The Bible describes a reliable future, but it is not always as clearly visible as we might prefer. God says that God knows God’s own plans for us: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11 NIV). We hear those words and imagine our own vision of prosperity – something we saw on a screen or heard from a platform – and then rush at the vision we have created, trusting it as our hope and future. When the vision is snatched away, so, too, is our hope.
How Do You Advance When Hope Isn’t In View?
That’s what happened in 2020. Just about every vision we had imagined was snatched from us. And we forgot how to walk in a dark and foggy night.
God warns us that the path is not clear and our vision fogged. We see imperfectly and only in part, “through a glass, darkly,” in the old King James language (1 Cor 13:12). So God recommends a strategy for moving forward in uncertainty: watching where the light of the Word shines a safe footing for the next step through the darkness, and only advancing as far as that light illuminates (Ps. 119:105).
Of course, it’s not easy to take life that slowly in the 21st century West. We have become so used to big stories of big achievements that it is easy for us to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10).
Small Steps Toward an Unseen Goal
In these times with their many restrictions, we still have many seemingly small opportunities to share kindness, peace, love with those around us whose hope is waning. In these times when there seem to be no large opportunities, God has given us the opportunity to “do small things with great love” (in the words of Mother Teresa). And as we do so, this time of small beginnings might build us together with many others who do not yet hope in Christ into a home where God’s spirit might dwell (Eph. 2:22).
We can accept the many difficulties COVID has presented and may continue to present, because we know that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5: 3-4).
Whether 2021 brings a happy new year or new challenges, it brings us reason for real hope.
Hopeful new year, everyone.
Here are a couple essays I found interesting while writing this post:
An essay in the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog discusses how the POW experience of true and false hope bears on business leadership during COVID.
Soldiers with This Trait are Survivors details the patterns of thinking and perception that allow for sustained hope based in reality.