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Giving Up the Hope of Future Reward Can Be Presently Rewarding

A Personal Perspective: Hope is a sunny trickster.

Key points

  • Letting go of hope, life's secret spoiler.
  • Hope seems like a good thing, but it plants seeds of discontent
  • Hope has a dark side we often ignore.

Hope, it seems, is generally regarded as salutary, as a boon, a blessing. I, however, am not such a fan. I won’t be waving any pom-pons or shouting any cheers on the sidelines for this sunny trickster. I am, in fact, trying to rid myself of hope.

Now, I know there is the calm abiding type of hope, hope that spring will come after winter, that the sun will emerge after the rain, a deep abiding sense of “this too shall pass.” That sort of hope, I’m sure, deserves all the grand press it receives, but that’s not the type of hope I encounter often, nor the sort of hope I have.

I have no shortage of hope. I am choking on hope. Every purchase I make on Amazon is fueled by hope; hope that Capri leggings, cargo pants, heavy-duty pillows, lightweight comforters, the memoir by the poet, the novel by the comic; hope that something in one of those magical brown boxes dropped by those magical men in brown at the front door, hope that something in these packages will finally, finally solve the big problem that this right here, this life I’m living here, well, it’s just not good enough.

“It’s not good enough,” hope taunts, sewing seeds of discontent, injecting dissatisfaction into the satisfactory. An emotional crook in fine garments, perfumed with optimism, hope secretly sets up a violent state of internal affairs, the wish for things to be otherwise, prompting the insistent, incessant objection of “Not this. Not this. Not this.” And the greedy More! More! More!” Hope, I maintain, is just a desire for better press agents and a superior marketing campaign.

Years ago I created a fake religion satirizing hope-based prosperity theology called Pyrasphere ( with my friend Andersen Gabrych, which had the slogans, “If you are not constantly happy and perpetually fulfilled, then something is wrong” and “The universe is your sky mall catalogue. Get shopping.” Afterward, we made a film called Bright Day! exposing the insidious nature of our faux religion’s manipulation of its followers’ hopes and dreams.

Stop with the hope, everybody! It’s killing you (and me!) was the message of the film.

Even The "Good Kind" of Hope May Be Not So Good

Now, what if the problem is not with hope itself but that I am simply hoping for the wrong things? Possible, but I don’t think so. I still maintain that hope is the culprit here because even if I’m hoping for the noblest of prizes; for peace, for contentment, for compassion, for the well-being of all sentient beings everywhere. Hope, I would argue, is still a nasty business. It’s still a scheme, an egoic prayer to strongarm the universe: Please let this meditation class, this yoga seminar, this chant, this mantra be the thing that solves it all, rights the wrongs, smooths the edge, unknots the knots, that finally makes good triumph over bad. Dear God or the Universe, Thy will be done, but please, if You would be so kind, please bend Your will to match mine.

I’ve become increasingly aware of my not-so-secret agenda and am attempting to expose myself to myself. What I’ve found is that almost everything I do involves hope for some kind of outcome or some future pay-off. A small but pervasive example: I’m perpetually signing off emails with “looking forward towards…” or “can’t wait until…” or “eager to see…” Looking at my sent emails, one would think I was in a near-constant state of frenzied anticipation and maybe I am.

Can’t I just do something for its own sake?

Apparently not.

I recently heard a short tale at the Zen center I attend here in Los Angeles.

A Zen Tale About Merit

Emperor Wu of Liang found out that the revered sage Bodhidharma had arrived in Kwangchow and dispatched an emissary to invite him to the palace. The emperor inquired of Bodhidharma, “I have up until now built temples, had sutras copied, and supported monks and nuns. What merit is there in these things?”

Bodhidharma curtly replied, “No merit!”

Emperor Wu of Liang was not pleased with this answer because, like me, Emperor Wu had built his life on hope, hoping for merit in the next life or at least the upcoming years. He wasn’t building temples and copying sutras for the fun of it: he wanted to get a benefit. But what if there were no benefits other than the building and the copying itself? What if everything didn’t have to be a springboard for something else?

I think that’s what Bodhidharma was trying to say. And I’m buying it.

I am working on cultivating hopelessness, a state without a secret, sneaky wish for things to be more to my liking. Of course, my cultivation of hopelessness involves some hope. I see that. I’ll call it a hopeful pursuit of hopelessness, and see where that leads me.

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