A Short Thought on Hope

I am currently (slowly) reading a book by Alex Bellos called Alex’s Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the wonderful world of mathematics. In the opening chapter he writes about various experiments performed on animals to ascertain their numerical capabilities. The following study performed on lionesses pounced on my interest. 

From the book:

“Karen McComb at the University of Sussex monitored a pride of lions in the Serengeti in order to show that lions use a sense of number when deciding whether to attack other lions. In one experiment a solitary lioness was walking back to the pride at dusk. McComb had a installed a loudspeaker hidden in the bushes and played a recording of a single roar. The lioness heard it and continued walking home. In a second experiment five lionesses were together. McComb played the roars of three lionesses through her hidden loudspeaker. The group of five heard the roars of three and peered in the direction of the noise. One lioness started to roar and soon all five were charging into the bushes to attack.

McComb’s conclusion was that the lionesses were comparing quantities in their heads. One vs one meant it was too risky to attack, but with a five-to-three advantage the attack was on” p 25.

Now, while I would love to write about all the various implications for our understanding and study of mathematics, I won’t.

What I want to briefly discuss, is what this Serengeti story says about how hope often functions in our life.

The question is, do the 5 lionesses hope? They hear three roars, they evaluate the numbers game, determine they have an advantage, and attack… do they hope they win? I would say no, they expect to win. Hope would be if there were three lionesses that upon hearing 5 roars, thought, “eh, let’s attack anyway”. That’s hope, chiefly because it is against the odds.

However for many of us, I think our hope functions more like McComb’s lionesses, our hope is more expectation than audacity. We tend to place our hope in things that have, at least a reasonable degree of eventuating. However, as John Caputo would say: hope is only hope, if there’s a chance the situation is hopeless, is beyond hope.

Expectation is fine, and makes a lot more sense – a sensible person bases their decisions on expected results, on the numbers game, on the best odds – they do not hope for luck, because the odds are ever in their favour. It is the hopeful person, the woman or man of hope, who makes the audacious move, who chooses to go after something even though they may cross the threshold of the bushes and be devoured by the pride.

And I think we are called to be a people of hope. Which means we are to be a people who place our hope in situations and dreams that may, in all honesty, under the cold fluorescence of bureaucratic expectation, be hopeless. Full gender equality (from education, to pay, to everyday sexism) may not come in my lifetime (in fact sometimes it feels like its going backwards), but that’s why I hope in it. The Millennium Development Goals (now rebranded) painted a bold, audacious, awe-inducing hope for brighter tomorrow – such a degree of hope that they couldn’t be achieved and now we’re starting over – that was a great thing in which to place one’s hope. A commitment to non-violence sometimes feels hopeless in the face of dinner table hypotheticals, but that is why I continue to hope that it is achievable. Sometimes audacious hopes morph into expectations over time, Indigenous Recognition in the Constitution, Marriage Equality, Republicanism, are all on the spectrum of becoming less hope and more expectation – and this is a good thing, but it is because someone in a previous generation did hope for something wildly audacious, and not in the least bit guaranteed.

It is this kind of hope, an audacious/hopeless hope that we place in the resurrection (and one which will never fall on the spectrum of expectation). It is not the bland expectation of certainty and smugness that we can so easily fall into (because it’s what helps us sleep better than everyone else) – but the radical, no satisfaction guaranteed kind of hope. The hope in the resurrection is a hope that causes us to toss and turn at night (sparing us the smugness of a good night’s sleep), the hope of faith, of things unseeable, unknowable, and uncontainable. The hope is in a promise (and a handshake promise at that) with no receipt, no warranty, and no ombudsmen.

But I like that it is this kind of hope. Because it is a hope without guarantee, without expectation that causes the restlessness needed to realise the hope itself.