High Hopes

Not long ago my wife and I saw a revival of the musical comedy Damn Yankees at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. The original musical, which ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway in the 1950s, told the story of an improbable pennant race between the powerhouse New York Yankees and those perennial cellar-dwellers, the Washington Senators. With the Senators long gone, the revival substituted the Boston Red Sox, who have a big fan base in Connecticut. The hero of the story is Joe Hardy, a middle-aged real estate agent who is transformed into a young long ball hitter after he makes a pact with the devil so he can help the Red Sox defeat the hated Yankees and win the pennant. Just before Hardy arrives on the scene, the Red Sox manager and some of his players are in the clubhouse contemplating their chances. They know they are not a great ball club -- no hitting and no pitching. What they need, says the manager, is heart, and he launches into one of the show’s iconic tunes:

You've gotta have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are sayin' you'll never win
That's when the grin should start
You've gotta have hope
Mustn't sit around and mope
Nothin's half as bad as it may appear
Wait'll next year and hope

Such sentiments are hard to resist, and mostly we don’t. Think of Scarlett O’Hara in the final scene of Gone with the Wind, after her daughter has died and Rhett Butler has walked out on her. She looks up hopefully, tears streaming down her face, and sobs, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” At an earlier turning point in the film, Scarlett returns to her home to find her mother dead of typhoid fever, her father crazed by grief and the plantation plundered by marauding Yankees (not the baseball variety). Starving and despondent, she vows, “I'll never be hungry again -- no, nor any of my folks! If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill! As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.” Whatever else you may think of her, Scarlett O’Hara has pluck. Margaret Mitchell never wrote a sequel to Gone with the Wind, so we’ll never know what became of her heroine, but our money is on Scarlett. And yet, if we stop and think about it, here is a woman who has already crashed and burned twice, with her own conniving often playing a part in her downfall. She has vowed to lie, steal, cheat or kill to get her way. Is she not a fresh disaster waiting to happen?

According to psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, hope can be a two-edged sword. A survivor of Auschwitz, Frankl knew first-hand that prisoners in the Nazi death camps who abandoned hope were doomed. And yet, as the war neared its end, the death rate rose dramatically, which Frankl attributed to the fact that some prisoners grew despondent when they were not liberated by Christmas. Under extreme conditions, he concluded, “false optimism” could be almost as deadly as despair.

For early Christians, who suffered persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the Romans, hope was key to their survival, even if it was only hope in the sweet by and by. Hope remains one of three cardinal virtues in Christianity, along with love and charity. From a Christian perspective, the Buddhist understanding of hope might seem almost perverse, since Buddhism regards hope as the handmaiden to fear. Both are an escape from the present moment, which is all that actually exists. Better to accept with equanimity things as they are, whether good or bad, than to get your hopes up, only to be plunged in to despair like the Auschwitz inmates when their immediate hopes were not realized. Thus, to abandon hope, from a Buddhist perspective, is not an act of resignation but a clear-eyed acceptance of reality on its own terms. By turning away from hope we are also turning away from fear.

In substituting the Boston Red Sox for the Washington Senators, it might appear that the revival of Damn Yankees had altered the premise of the original show. It is true that the Red Sox had been perennial losers for decades. But their fortunes had improved mightily since the turn of the new century, and when the show opened in the spring of 2014, they were fresh off their third World Series victory in a decade. And yet, in a classic case of life imitating art, the Red Sox stumbled out of the gate and never recovered thereafter. We are tempted to say, “Wait’ll next year!” But before we put our hopes in hope, we would do well to consider the example of the team in the musical. True, they showed a lot of pluck. But their hopes rested on a young long-ball hitter who had made a pact with the devil.

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