April 6: Hope is light seen from viewpoint of captivity

Human life is sacred; it is also a form of captivity. Most people get the first part, not so many the second. But if we don’t understand, or better yet feel, the captivity of our current existence, we will not know the meaning of hope. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we need hope. And hope is quite different than optimism.

The central place of captivity in human existence might remind some of Jean-Paul Sartre’s wartime play, No Exit. In that play, three people die and are put together in the same room with no way out. One eventually tries to kill another, a futile effort since both are already dead. The situation leads one of the three to exclaim Sartre’s most famous line, “Hell is other people.”

captivityHowever, the nature of human captivity is not so despairing. Built into our situation of being captives is a longing for deliverance, for salvation. The fullness of life for which we long is impossible in our earthly state. Another French philosopher, a contemporary of Sartre’s, Gabriel Marcel, said our experience of being captive turns our soul toward a light yet to be born. The shining of this mysterious light illumines hope’s dwelling place.

Despair is a belief that God has withdrawn from me, that death is a release from a hopeless situation. Hope is the belief that our captivity is not the full story. We yearn to be united with the Infinite Being who is the source of all that is, who is the source of the manifold gifts we receive in life. At some point, we will be united with the Infinite.

In this pandemic, some are optimistic about finding a solution. Others are pessimistic. Both optimists and pessimists examine the facts as they are known and draw conclusions as to how many people will die, how long it will take to put an end to this disease and how that end might be achieved. Their analyses are needed in helping the world find its way out of the crisis.

Marcel believed the technical reason used in these analyses had displaced hope in the modern psyche. Reason, he maintained, cannot lead us to hope. Hope comes from a thorough analysis of human existence. Ultimately, hope cannot exist without faith. It also requires the experience of communion with others. Such communion is deeper than community, it is an intimate relationship among those who together have hope.

Optimists and pessimists are spectators on life, but those who hope swim in the interior life and grow towards unity with the Infinite. Hope brings a person to a posture of humility and patience before life. During a crisis, the hopeful person does not calculate so much as be patient in waiting for liberation. Hope can survive a situation of almost total ruin.

While Sartre’s most famous saying is, “Hell is other people,” Marcel’s would be, “Hope is a mystery and not a problem.”

gabriel marcel1Marcel was raised in a non-religious home and remained non-religious through his early adulthood. He never had a blinding conversion. Yet, he examined key aspects of human existence such as hope, fidelity, moral character and forgiveness. A novelist friend of his noted that these analyses sounded Catholic and that he should consider joining the Catholic Church. Marcel pondered the question for a while and decided “Yes, I should become Catholic.”

That was in 1939 at the start of the Second World War. The essay from which I have drawn much of this article, “Sketch of a Phenomenology and a Metaphysic of Hope” was first delivered as a lecture during the war’s darkest hour in 1942. Marcel’s personalist philosophy was influential with others such as Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope St. John Paul II) and Paul Ricoeur. He hosted weekly Friday evening gatherings of philosophers such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas and Nicolas Berydaev.

Marcel’s philosophy of hope perhaps leans too much toward hope as being liberated from our captivity in a union with God after death. But hope is also part of our daily lives. We can experience hope in the laughter of a child, the sound of a rushing river or another person’s willingness to help us when we are in distress. In such experiences we may have a vision of the eternal. We benefit greatly from hope in an after-life lived in union with God. But we live in the ordinary where God’s presence can be detected if we develop the eyes to see.

– Glen Argan

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