In April of 1937, my grandmother was sitting in a restaurant with her husband when he suddenly collapsed. Ralph was 25 years old when he died of unknown causes; they had been married just three years. In that same week, the Hindenburg crashed not too far from my grandmother’s Philadelphia home; Fascism was gaining power in Europe, and politics at home were contentious. The Depression had put my great-grandfather out of work, and in her straitened circumstances, my grandmother moved into a women’s boarding home after Ralph’s passing. I don’t know what her feelings were at the time. She was a stoic German Pennsylvanian who didn’t complain about hardship much — but I would have felt that the world was coming to an end.
But her world didn’t end. She married again during the early years of WWII, had twins while my grandfather was away serving in the army, burying one of them. She eventually settled into family life on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I remember her as someone who always had a project to work on in her retirement: painting, gardening, knitting doll clothes, volunteering at her church’s charity shop. She was an attentive grandmother and neighborly to the core, the kind of person who cut out newspaper clippings that might interest her friends and family, who had a special drawer of treats for visiting grandchildren, who gamely went tent camping well into her 70s, and was a diligent letter correspondent. She died at age 82.
Remembering my grandmother with love, I come to the realization that family stories like these help me foster hope in my own life. And I’ve tried to tease out the reason that memories of the past should be relevant when hope is supposed to look to the future. Or why stories of hardship would be a comfort to me when hope is supposed to expect good things, not trials.
The more I think and read on the topic, the more paradoxical and profound hope seems to me.
What is hope?
In its simplicity, hope is desire, and the expectation of that desire’s fulfillment. It requires a heartfelt emotion, even though in our conversations, we often use the word dismissively. “I hope so” can be a bland conversation ender, but hope in the true sense should be deep and persistent. In the triumvirate of faith, hope, and charity, hope is necessarily a vital and uplifting feeling.
That desire rises out of a lack or need. Just as faith only exists in relation to uncertainty, hope can only be felt along with an awareness of unfulfillment. Hope is one side of a coin: the vision of something better backed by the realization of a less-than-ideal reality.
What do we hope for?
When I contemplate hope then, I give myself the chance to reflect on what it is that I truly desire. Moroni is the one who taught me that hope can be cultivated and altered. In Moroni 7:41, he asked, “What is it that ye shall hope for?” — a question that has always struck me because it conveys the startling possibility of picking and choosing one’s hopes. Desire can’t be willed into existence, can it? When it comes to what we want, how can we argue with the heart? But this is partly what the gospel is all about: teaching our heart what to desire and what not to desire. Wisdom is knowing which desires are honored by God and which ones are counterproductive to our own or other people’s happiness. It is also knowing how to desire rightly. This is certainly something I have not mastered, but I have a feeling that it’s all right to keep learning throughout an entire lifetime.
I have a memory of being very young, probably in the lower elementary grades, and trying to trick myself into not hoping for some treat because I wondered whether lovely things only happened when I wasn’t expecting them. Please understand that I wasn’t a deprived or neglected child. What I hoped for was not something that I necessarily needed. It may have been paper dolls. It may have been a snow day. But I remember this inner conversation as an early attempt to sneakily get what I wanted by trying to convince the universe that I didn’t really care.
But this is not a successful strategy. Shutting off one’s desires is not a way to find happy fulfillment. There may be a time to stop internally begging for something, but if the desire is a true one, then it will have its time. In Ether 3:2, the brother of Jared prays and says, “O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires.” Our theology does not tell us to ignore what the heart wants, but to recognize the power of worthy desires and to direct them back to our Creator–to ask for and expect to experience goodness and joy. At the time of this verse, when the brother of Jared recognized that God wanted him to keep desiring, he was experiencing his own hardships and uncertainty: as refugees, he and his family had been living in the wilderness for several years. This moment of prayer was a new beginning, a new push to find their promised land.
Past, Present, and Future Hope
Three scriptural verses offer different applications of this kind of optimism, the recognition that God wants us to be happy, and the trust in the possibility of joy. They reflect our lived experience within a mortal timeline.
Moroni 10:3 says, “Behold, I would exhort you that…ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.” This prescribed exercise in remembrance is also a lesson on the nature of God’s goodness. Looking for mercy in the lives of past, it somehow becomes possible to find it. And if the vast scope of human history may be hard to grapple with, we have memories of loved ones, past family stories or common histories that show us this mercy. Thinking about my grandmother’s experiences, I feel a hopeful appreciation for the miracle of her life and am grateful that she had the chance to be woven into the fabric of humanity, that her life is bound up in my own. Her hardships fortify my own resilience, and my love for her reminds me of a larger concept of goodness.
In his letter to the Philippians, 4:11, Paul says, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Finding peace even in the midst of difficulty, Paul experiences the grace of not needing to look for an escape from the present. Rather than looking to the future as the source for his optimism, the gospel of good news gives him the capacity to rest in the here and now. This is a rare gift, a different kind of hope as Paul turns his desire toward gratitude and trust rather than his needs or lacks.
But Moroni also says, in Ether 12:4, “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world…” This scripture reminds us that belief prompts us to expect something beyond our present experience, to think in terms of change or improvement, to look forward.
Of course, Paul is not wrong to find contentment even while Moroni directs us to look for better things. The paradoxes of the gospel make it more, not less true. And what these three perspectives have in common is not their temporal orientation — to the past, present, or the future — but their acknowledgment or anticipation of goodness, mercy, and joy. Hope then is the kind of resilience that is able to find these qualities both in real and potential circumstances. It is always looking for new beginnings, never saying this is the end, but expecting goodness to resurface if we nurture it. Hope is an exercise in perspective, of seeing the world as it is, recognizing the strain and stress of our time-bound existence while trusting in the underlying miracle of goodness that holds and nurtures our mortal lives and the eternal perspective that gives all of us a chance to find our heart’s desire eventually.
Christmas and the remembrance of hope
I know of no other celebration where hope is so clearly the focus than Christmas. The advent season is by definition a remembrance of expectant hope. We look back to the past of Jesus’ birth and into the future of our own coming festivities. We commemorate this time by storing up gifts to share with loved ones on Christmas day — seeking out the secret hearts’ desire especially of children or of those who are in need, and then rewarding those needs and longings. We celebrate by counting down days using special calendars and by re-reading prophecies of a coming Messiah. The Christmas season is more than the commemoration of a single birthday itself, it is a re-anticipation of Jesus’s birth and an exercise in hope. And that birth itself was not a complete fulfillment, not a happy ending to the story of humanity or even the story of Jesus. As a newborn, Jesus wasn’t yet teaching wise truths, calling disciples away from their fishing boats, or performing miracles of healing. This was a starting point, and the expectation of good things to come was in itself the miracle. Now, as we look back to the first Christmas, we are also each individually at new starting points in our lives. We are always able to start desiring, finding, and creating for ourselves and others the goodness, joy, and mercy in our past, present, and future. Our theology points us to Christ as the source of hope. In this season we look for joy in Him and find it all around us.