“Even the spirits of men and women who would stand up to outright torture can be crushed by enough prolonged hopelessness.”
– Commodore Honor Harrington, Echoes of Honor
Honor Harrington Series, by David Weber
When Honor says this, she is speaking of something she knows very well. She has had recent experiences which have acquainted her most intimately with what it means to lose hope. And with what it means to be tortured. She was able to come to grips with the latter, but the former? That nearly destroyed her. In fact, she was lost in despair when she found another well of strength within her, namely the resolve to meet her fate, however horrible, as her best self. That was the only hope she had left, when all the rest were lost to her.
Now, in this part of her story, she and a handful of survivors are trapped in a hellish place, with the odds stacked against their survival, let alone their escape. Her intention is to take her people, and everyone else who will follow her, and save them all. She intends to go home. Thus, she carries hope to a people who, like her, have known hopelessness, and for a much, much longer time than she did.
She is very right to be wary, because anyone who goes without hope for too long may never be able to accept it again. And the rejection of hope can be every bit as fatal as misplaced hopes. And why does one reject hope? Because one has lost it, and grown accustomed to lacking it. It’s like if a bone was somehow removed from the flesh, and then could somehow be restored or replaced: the loss was painful, and the restoration could be most helpful, but it’s still going to hurt.
Not everyone can take that kind of hurt. Not even if the alternative, of remaining without hope, is worse.
I’m reminded of something from the show Supernatural, where the two lead heroes are captured and imprisoned. They’re not tortured at all, just locked up in concrete rooms and left there, with only meal times to pass the time. That is the torture which was chosen for them, one which their keeper has seen break anyone: prolonged hopelessness. They simply had nothing to do, and no way out, and these two men, who have faced down monsters of every kind, and suffered losses and pains of every kind, were both broken by it.
I remember a scene from Avatar: The Last Airbender, where an old woman who was once very nice became very nasty instead. The difference? She spent years and years in a prison, barely surviving, and utterly without hope. She managed to break herself out, but she was without hope for so long that she never really regained it. She lost her humanity, her compassion, to the deep-seated hatred, which had its roots in her years of despair.
And I look around today, at the turmoil ripping my country apart. People are so hateful, so vengeful, so petty and violent. I am of the opinion that many of them are simply without hope, and have lived that way for far too long. They’re lashing out, trying to fill the holes in their hearts with… stuff. With things. With bloodshed. With destruction. But without hope, it won’t matter what they tear down or who they destroy. No matter how much they succeed, they’ll never really win, will they?
Many are suffering, and going to suffer in the times ahead. But those who stand tall will do so only if they can hold on to their hope. Otherwise, those without hope are already broken.
Hope is what drives us to improve things, to improve ourselves, to endure, to build, to bend our backs to the labor of saving ourselves and those around us, one day at a time.
Despair is what drives us to break things, as we are already broken, and to leave our souls to rot.
Hope is so small, and so strong, and so fragile, and so stubbornly resilient because we need it. We need it as human beings, as individuals, as communities, as families and nations, and as civilization.
Hope is vital, because it’s lack leaves us always, inherently, bereft and weak.
That’s why villains always try to break it, and steal it, and snuff it out.
That’s why the greatest heroes are those who spread hope wherever they go, through every act of love and kindness.
The world is breaking because people don’t have hope.
And the world is still alive because people do have hope.