Sunday, July 10, 2022

The book of hope is less than two pages

How to hope: A self-help guide

Hope hurts, but it's worth it. There. Can I get publisher money now?

I found a large, thin book in my mailbox today called "How to hope for children". It didn't have any words on the back of the cover or any signs of a publisher, and it was covered in clear plastic which prevented opening it up. I put it in my pocket and went on my way, thinking about what kind of useless clichés it would probably contain and what weird government initiative had led to delivering this thing to presumably every household in Sweden. We got a manual with basic instructions in case of war or crisis the other year, it's not unreasonable to think they would have come up with a bunch of exercises designed to keep kids hopeful for the future, times being what they are. I thought I should try to write this thing you're reading now, because I know a thing or two about real hope. We'll get to that.

When I got home I checked the mail again (useful reflex I've developed while living alone), and further down I found another, smaller, thicker book called "How to hope". But this is not an anecdote about how skimming my mailbox created a mystery that inspired me to write; it's an anecdote about the deliberate, carefully thought out ways in which organized religion targets people at their most vulnerable. On the back of the adult's version I could read "How to hope" was in fact the New Testament and this was a project by a coalition of the town's churches.

So I threw the books in the trash – disassembling them for recycling seemed like too much work, and we need so much trash to burn for the heating plants we buy it from Norway anyway – and sat down to think about how to explain hope.

Hope, trust, love, life: These things are all both feelings and actions, all closely related in my observation. Dear and necessary cousins that I have had to spend a lot of time constructing for myself as an adult, after a childhood where I discarded them before understanding what they were. Or caring, or feelings in general. Or other people.

I lived alone with my mom, and after a dream I had where she walked away I couldn't trust her like a child should. Especially since she tried to assure me it wasn't real and she'd never leave me. I was maybe four years old and I didn't quite know the difference between dreams and reality, but I knew people shouldn't say one thing and do another.

And that was that, until I was maybe twenty-two and I figured out reality doesn't actually work if you don't trust people on some level. You have to trust people when they tell you you're not dreaming, for instance. Otherwise it's a short road to full solipsism. I knew that in my head, and then I could start figuring out how to trust people, how to create and maintain the condition of trust.

You just decide. It's scary to trust, because it hurts when they let you down, but there's no big secret to it.

(There's a secret to being brave, but this margin is too small to contain it.)

You just decide to trust people, as much as you can, over and over, because you have to. Because the alternative is dying. I think you have to want to not die enough, but that's it.

You're allowed to be biased towards life over death, because we're alive. I think that's the least controversial statement I have made in my life, but it bears repeating. It bears thinking carefully about. Something like seven percent of all humans who have ever lived are still alive today; I think we are more important than the 93% dead ones. I think the perpetuation and improvement of human life on this planet is important. And among the conditions for life that can be improved – conditions we as individuals have some actual power to change for ourselves – is our mental condition. The way we think about things, what we prioritize.

You decide that life matters, that trust matters, that love matters, that hope matters. You decide to act according to that belief. And the world will reward you for it every day.

I won't bore you with the details of how I figured out each of those feelings and actions for myself. You can either take the time to figure it out as I did, or trust me. (See what I did there?) If you're reading this you may have been expecting a novel-length thesis, but I believe in keeping lessons short, plain and to the point. There's only so many different ways I can say the same thing and at 800 words this text already feels like masturbation.

So, just as plainly as I can: You don't get hope from a poster of a cat hanging from a tree branch. You don't get hope from a magic man in the sky who's promising to save you. You don't get hope just because you have it hard. You don't get hope in your pocket as something you can pull out just when you need it. In fact you don't get hope for free in any way whatsoever.

You have to build it yourself. It's is a lot like food, now that I think about how to explain it.

First, you need effort to make it. You can make it from scratch, hunting and foraging in the wild, if you can put in a lot of leg work. Or you can pay someone to make it for you if you're lucky. But, secondly, you need to choke it down. That can be hard if you're starting with bad ingredients or you're poorly equipped for cooking or you're a picky eater. But both cooking and eating are skills you can develop – that you have to develop in order to survive, unless you're gifted with more resources than most of us.

Also it's easier and more pleasant to share cooking duties and meal times with a group of people. I highly recommend doing that if you can.

But that's all I can say. You decide to feel hope, and to hope. You insist on hope. You rise into the air on wings of hope and you lift as many people up with you as you can. And when you get knocked down in the mud you cry and then you stand up and build up your hope again because the alternative is to wallow in the mud forever, until it gets too heavy to breathe and you die.

Hope insistently, trust implicitly, love deliberately, live like you mean it. This is neither poetry nor philosophy, nothing romantic, just basic survival tips. You should do these things because it's healthy for you. Because sometimes you need to eat salad.

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