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The Colors of Hope

Have you ever been to a butterfly pavilion? I went to the one in Scottsdale years ago. It was just after I left Reevis Mountain School, where I’d been living for six years. I was full of feelings of transformation, new beginnings, and freedom. I wandered around the pavilion among the gorgeous fluttering butterflies for a couple of hours and thought about what I wanted to do next.

For a while I sat on a bench and watched the other people interacting with the butterflies. Several times, I saw a person approach a big, resplendent beauty and put out their hand, or slowly edge closer to one that was fluttering around. The person was obviously hoping the lovely creature would hop onto their hand or land on their shoulder.

In a couple of cases, the person who was so hopeful, and trying so hard to get the attention of the butterfly, didn’t realize that there was already a beautiful butterfly sitting quietly on top of their head.

Hope is a double-edged sword. Often hope leads people to try so hard, to strive after things painfully – or to wait endlessly, holding onto the hope of something happening or changing. I’ve stayed far too long in more than one unhappy relationship or job, in the desperate hope that it would get better.

Hope can paralyze you, but it’s not always a passive thing. Hope can spur you to activity, too – like the mythical character Sisyphus, who rolls a boulder up a hill over and over, only to see it roll right back down again every time.

In the myth, Sisyphus is trapped in this futile repetition because that’s his punishment for trying to become immortal. But I’ve done the same kind of thing to myself many times, trying to make something happen again and again in the constant hope that eventually, what I’m doing will work. I can’t think of a single time it ever did. It was just the classic definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over, hoping to get a different result.

There’s a play by Terence Rattigan about a woman who loves a man who doesn’t love her back. She reaches the point of attempting suicide, when a friend forces her to face the facts, at last. The friend tells her the man is never going to come back. The friend says, “That word never. Face that and you can face life. Get beyond hope. It’s your only chance.”

The woman asks, “What is there beyond hope?” The friend says: “Life.”

Misplaced hope can keep you from living, from getting on with your life.

But there’s another kind of hope, one that doesn’t get in the way of living. It’s humbler and quieter, but enormously more powerful, because it’s rooted in truth and not self-delusion.

Václav Havel – the dissident, and later president, of the Czech Republic – wrote, “Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

This kind of hope goes beyond whatever the future may hold, or even whether a future can be expected at all. Hope, Havel writes, “is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Hope like this springs from values. Clearly, it goes beyond facts, but it doesn’t turn a blind eye to them. It’s a hope you can hold onto and live by even in times of hopelessness.

To me, genuine hope is a confidence in an unseen reality, a bigger picture that puts a present situation in a new light. It relies on a larger vision and understanding: knowing that the sun will rise, the seed will bloom, the chrysalis will become a butterfly. “Confidence in Daybreak modifies Dusk,” Emily Dickinson wrote.

Of course, hope like this depends on faith: you can hope for a brighter tomorrow if you believe there’s going to be a tomorrow. And to be honest, that kind of faith, for many people today, is running thin.

But as desperate as things can get, I think it’s never time to give up. The bare facts of life on Earth are bad enough – war, division, disease. We need to face these and keep working for a better world as long as we can, as Havel says.

But there are also questions where the jury is out – the big questions, like whether things can get better and whether there will be a tomorrow. In regard to these questions, I remain in favor of optimism – the humble kind of hope, that trusts in bigger pictures and ultimate order beyond what we can see today. 

I see no reason to close off the possibility of the deepest truth being something better than we can imagine – something wondrous. I’m in favor of Brandon Sanderson’s Zeroth Law: “Always err on the side of what’s awesome.”

And then there’s Concetta Antico. She’s an artist from Australia who was born with a condition called tetrachromancy: whereas most people have three “cone” cells in their retinas – the cells that separate out colors in your field of vision – Concetta Antico has four. A normal person can distinguish between about 1 million colors, but Antico can see 100 million.

Antico says, “I’m sure people just think I’m high on something all the time, but I’m really just high on life and the beauty that’s around us. I often think to myself, how could you be unhappy in this world? Just go sit in a park. Just go look at a bush or a tree. You can not appreciate how magnificent it is.”

That’s what I mean. Hope, to me, is knowing we live in a world like that, even if we ourselves don’t have the ability to see all its colors. Knowing it’s a magnificent world, even if at this particular moment it looks dark and perilous. 

It’s a world where a butterfly could be perched on the top of your head, for all you know. Where, even amid war, strife and disease, hope still makes sense.


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