A future that outlives the magic of December
The last week of the year feels extremely boring. Not a whining, restless child’s boredom but a foggy, carpeted malaise. Not only does it feel like there is nothing new, it feels like nothing new will ever be discovered again.
The things that usually bring us wonder or stir our blood—the frenzy of Wall Street, the majesty of the Vatican, the mysticism of the Pyramids, the erotica of Klimt paintings—now make us feel dull and underwhelmed. The spark of the holidays has come and gone. The cheer of the most magical time of the year has been put back in its box where it will be stored—along with its glittery ornaments—until next December.
When mountains of wrapping paper have been tidied and the shiny new toys start losing their novelty, all that is left is a sense of ‘here we go again’. Even New Year resolutions feel increasingly old-fashioned and unserious as the years go by. We leave our trees up until March. We set alarms with a tad too much ambition for the person we wake up as the next morning, so we hit snooze…Just five more minutes…and then I’ll deal with the mild anxiety that comes with passing another year.
And this is the time of the year when our hope is tested.
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Hope can be hard to grasp because it’s intangible. To the staunch materialist, hope can seem like escapism because it feels made-up. Yet, just because something is fictitious or subjective does not make it any less significant—after all, don’t all our creations begin with a belief, a dream, or an aspiration? I’m reminded of that moment from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry meets Dumbledore in limbo and asks, “Is this all real, or is it just happening inside my head?” to which Dumbledore replies, “Of course it is happening inside of your head, but why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Hope is not some ‘pie in the sky’, having hope is actually the most practical thing to do. Hope unites all your beliefs and gives you something to live for; it’s what Aristotle called a “waking dream”. And when you stop fragmenting internally, you also stop self-sabotaging. It fills you with enthusiasm (which, by the way, literally means to be inspired by the gods) and encourages you to look forward. Hope gives you the courage to lose sight of the shore so you can swim for new horizons.1 Hope gives your soul opposable thumbs to have a better grip on life.
Hope is not wishful thinking; it’s not just some aesthetic emotion, and it’s much deeper than motivation. Viktor Frankl described it like this: Imagine you are flying an airplane and a crosswind is pushing you to the right of your destination. To stay on track, you have to aim leftward in order to override the power of the turbulence.2 The lesson: Aim for more than you need to and you’ll end up exactly where you want to be. Dream bigger than you need to and act as if your vision is bigger than you can handle—that surplus, optimism, is what’s going to protect and deliver you from inevitable tribulations.
C.S. Lewis said something similar:
Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
Historically, the Christians who did the most for the present world were those who thought most of the next: “The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.” When we forget about Heaven—that is, how perfect things can be—the present also seems to disappear. When we have nothing to strive for, the present no longer matters. Hope is the possibility of there even being possibilities at all; it’s about working on something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance of success.
For me, the days between Christmas and the first of January evoke a strong sense of ‘memento mori’, possibly due to the associations between winter and death (i.e., an ending). Simultaneously, I find it poetic how Christmas arrives just days after the winter solstice—the longest period of darkness; it’s as if the universe is declaring that, from here on out, the days shall overthrow the nights. New beginnings shall defeat and redeem poor endings. Life shall triumph over death. Christmas—the birth of Christ—taken literally, symbolically, or secularly, stands as the ultimate beacon of a promising future.
There is no such thing as mere hope because hope is anything but mere. No winter is too cold for spring to bloom, no night is too dark for the Sun to rise. A little bit of tomorrow can brighten a lot of today. Light is not called to invade darkness but rather to conquer it.
Thank you for reading. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a New Year filled with joy and new adventures.
“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” —William Faulkner
Original lecture: “Viktor Frankl on Why Idealists Are Real Realists”