By Gary Corseri
Oct. 8, 2008
Originally published 1/15/08
“Hope is confetti—politicians love to spread it. “Let’s change things,” they say, merely altering the vocabulary of hope. “Look at my experience,” they say, and, peering carefully, we see a landscape of broken hopes and scattered dreams. Hope diminishes the will.”
Can there be courage without hope, freedom without wisdom, fear without tyranny?
Are not courage and hope inversely related? The less hope, the greater the need for courage. But a surfeit of courage can be foolhardy. Soldiers are trained to have courage and leave the hoping to others. Yet, they hope, in spite of themselves, in spite of training and propaganda. They hope to survive and escape injury. They hope for home. Their courage diminishes as their hopes rise. They will take fewer risks as home comes closer.
Those who go on suicide missions have no hope of a better life. Blinding hatred has taken over their wills. Perhaps they hope for a heaven with 72 virgins. Or the Mormon Tabernacle choir singing on drifting clouds. Can there be courage without reason? Armies are commanded on that basis.
“Hope against hope,” people say. But, it’s meaningless. They are saying: Have hope, even when you don’t.
No one would say, “Courage against courage.” What would that mean? Not that one should have courage even when one doesn’t. It would, rather, describe a battle: courage contending with courage.
Hope is illusory, courage is solid. Hope recedes and fades; courage advances, stands its ground—or lives to fight another day. Hope rules the faint-hearted. Hope is the panderer’s word. With courage, the faint-hearted disappear.
Marx called religious “hope” the “opiate of the people.” It consistently failed them, diverted them from their true purposes, their unity and strength. He never spoke against animus or anima—the animating spirit: the true self behind the socialized mask; the self that moves towards entelechy or actualization. The self that needs courage to transform itself and the world.
If I lose hope, I lose something I never possessed. Did I hope for a better life? Only because I never possessed that life. It simply reveals unhappiness with my present circumstances. If I lose courage, I lose the staff of my existence:
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff—they comfort me.
Is it a prayer for hope or for courage? Here is the yearning of hope—hope in a Deity to protect and comfort in the face of Death and danger. But, with hope, we are in the realm of the Shadow. Courage is the rod and staff that vanquishes evil, confronts the Shadow, reassures the bearer.
This is the intimate Deity of Martin Buber’s I and Thou. What is this Thou but another I? Recognition of the Divine within and without. The divine in the connection. Not a hope in some Dante-esque Paradisio. But the courage to risk the connection. If we sail the kite up towards lightning, will the key take the charge? Do we risk life and limb to stand ground in the storm? Have we the courage to prove a point?
How to instill courage, how to breed it? Hope is confetti—politicians love to spread it. “Let’s change things,” they say, merely altering the vocabulary of hope. “Look at my experience,” they say, and, peering carefully, we see a landscape of broken hopes and scattered dreams. Hope diminishes the will. If I have hope of improvement, I can sit back and wait till it’s bequeathed to me. Hope is trusting, courage challenging. Politicians, preachers, generals, and corporate “leaders” all try to instill hope. The last thing they want is courage in the ranks. Courage assesses and acts accordingly; hope accedes. Courage commands itself; hope genuflects.
Can there be courage without reason? The blind courage of hatred, yes. Even the blind courage of love—the father or mother showing insuperable strength to save their endangered child. But the courage of the reasonable man or woman is the highest courage and the highest reason. This, too, is understood by generals and politicians, et. al. And it is that courage they fear.
The sine qua non of hope is fear. The sine qua non of courage is tyranny. In some eupeptic utopias, I need not fear, for all my hopes are realized. But in those same strange brave new worlds, I will need a plethora of courage because “all my hopes are realized”! Without courage, the mask predominates, imagination sinks into the slough of despond.
The great artists have always understood the need for courage: courage to pursue their goals, visions, entelechy. Pissarro persists into his 70s, despite poverty, failure, abuse, abandonment. He stops hoping; but he does not surrender animus. Renoir thrusts his claw-like arthritic hand at the canvas. He can never recapture the lithe forms of his 40th year, the insouciance and color-play of Two Sisters. No matter, he has the courage to imagine seraphic, dreamy visions. Beethoven cannot hear. But he “hears” well enough to set the Chorale triumphantly before the skeptical world.
In a world where we need not fear, we need not hope. Our fear of tomorrow, keeps our noses to the grindstone of hope. Our fear that preposterous “leaders” will destroy the earth and all that it inhabits, keeps us hoping that political processes that have long failed us and all the faithful, will somehow transform. I stand with the brave few when I perceive that the only transformation possible is one like Bottom’s: the donkey’s ears and snout revealed.
Can we abolish the sine qua non of courage, tyranny? Not so long as we are mortal, for the tyranny of death will have suasion. Even Jefferson—uncourageous in his personal life—understood: “I have sworn eternal vigilance against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” We cannot eliminate the Tyrannos of Time—that first progenitor who ate, even, the gods.
The view I see from my 5th floor apartment is changing even as I write; the traffic flowing inexorably into evening, into a gas-choked future of uncertainty, deprivation, new and old threats to the balance of power, to the equilibrium of the heart. I have no hope that the many honking their horns have answers to alleviate their fears. I can only try my best to cultivate courage to face the maelstrom: to listen carefully, to search for signs, to weed out the extraneous, to distill real gold from the fool’s.
(Gary Corseri has posted/published his work at hundreds of venues, including Dandelion Salad, Thomas Paine’s Corner, The New York Times. He has taught in universities and prisons, published novels and poetry collections, performed at the Carter Presidential Library; and his dramas have been presented on Atlanta-PBS, etc. He can be contacted at Gary_Corseri@comcast.net.)
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Good discussion, but the distinction offered is false, I think.