Hope is an amazingly dense and complicated concept. It can be a noun or a verb and can be the root of many adverbs and adjectives. Here are Webster’s definitions: “v. expect or look forward to, with desire and confidence. – n. 1, confidence in a future event; expectation of something desired. 2, what is hoped for. 3, something that arouses or justifies hope.” Don’t you love that the second and third noun definitions actually use the word being defined? How helpful is it to you to know that “hope” is something that arouses hope? This ridiculously vague definition is why theologians and philosophers have been writing books about hope for centuries.
It’s tempting – very, very tempting – to throw my own hat into the ring and take a stab at defining hope. In a sense, I’m going to do it anyway, but I want to be clear that I have a particular, specific and ultimately narrow perspective as to what hope means for me. Now that I’m a parent, hope is something I have and want for my daughter. So this Advent season, I want to focus not on what my hopes are for her, but rather how I can help raise her to have hopes for herself.
She’s two and a half years old, so her ability to conceive of lofty ideals like hope, faith or love limited to the concrete and specific. But she has yet to develop operational thinking, so she doesn’t even know how to separate concrete and specific ideas. Piaget called this stage “preoperational” or “intuitive;” Erikson described this stage as being characterized by the struggle of autonomy versus shame and doubt. She experiences the world as a rich mash-up of impressions, emotional experiences, and instinctual impressions. She seeks to discover her own identity separate from the ego-boundaries of her caregivers (like me), but tries to do this in a way that doesn’t alienate and separate her from her caregivers, whom she needs. It’s a time in a child’s developmental life that is filled with fantasy, imagination, and the inability to parse between what is “real” and what is make-believe.
The concept of time is an operational way of thinking. It develops fully in children around the age of six. A child of two-and-a-half does not know how to tell time, and is only beginning to learn to count. She doesn’t comprehend the idea of the future. Sometimes seems to understand a short sequence of events, such as “We’ll read after we take a bath.” But she doesn’t understand a broader concept of a more distant future event, such as “We’ll go to the park later this week.” If she is not yet able to fully comprehend the concept of the future, can she really hope? So much of what I understand about hope for myself is about what happens in the future, but she does not live in this same cognitive realm. Is hope, for her, limited only to wanting to read after taking a bath? I suppose that is still “looking forward” to something; it is still the “expectation of something desired.” But hoping for a book after bath doesn’t seem quite lofty enough to warrant the weighty usage of an ideal such as Hope.
So imagine, if you can, what your world would be like if you could give up operational thought. Operational thought, if you need the refresher, means being able to categorize events and actions such that they fit into sensible and reversible operations. Addition, subtraction, classification are all typical operations in Piaget’s theoretical explanation. Around the age of six or seven, children develop concrete operational thought. They can do basic arithmetic, they can understand concepts of classifications that move and apply between different sets (like family relationships), and they can understand the concepts of space and time as they relate to the external world. Children with operational thinking can distinguish between reality and fantasy. When our daughter has a bad dream and we go in to comfort her, she tells us there are bugs in her bed. A child with operational thought would say she had a bad dream that there were bugs in her bed.
So get rid of your operational thinking. There are now no boundaries between what is real and imagined, between what is now and what is yet to be. What does this do to your hope? If my expectations and desires for the future become present and immediate, are they still hopes? I don’t know, because, of course, I can’t just relinquish my operational thinking. But my little girl is free from this at the moment.
This does not mean that all children naturally live in a world of fulfilled expectations and desires, happily existing in fantasies of meaning and delight. Preoperational thought is fraught with anxieties, fears, and dreads. Isn’t it a relief when you realize that the bugs in your bed are not real? An abused child cannot separate herself from the imagined horrors she intuits from the experiences of a neglectful parent.
Which leads me to what makes my job as a parent so important to me. In order for my child to live in an imagination that is truly hopeful in a developmentally appropriate way, I must take responsibility for creating an environment in which she feels safe to imagine good, desirable, fulfilling things as possible.
So yes: hope is about looking forward to a book after bath. Hope is about getting animal crackers after eating your broccoli. Hope is about going to the park with Daddy on sunny Saturdays. Hope is about seeing your friends at church. Hope is about saying what you want because you believe you will get it, even if what you want is just to watch Sesame Street or play with trains. Living in this kind of hopeful world is what allows children to accept that they won’t always get what they want. Because even if we can’t play right now, perhaps soon we will. If we can’t play with this toy, then perhaps there is another toy we can play with. We may not be able to go to the park when it rains, but we’ll go some other day – and in the meantime we’ll remember and imagine how fun and happy it was to be at the park the last time we went.
Hope, at least for my sweet little Curly Fries, is about the unspoken trust that her home is safe and loving. Hope is about letting memories of happiness blend with the desires for the moment so that each new experience becomes infused with a sense of love and warmth. Ultimately, it may not even matter if I take her to the park on Saturday; what matters is that she can live in the experience of going to the park with her Daddy. When and whether that experience exists in the real world doesn’t matter to her as much as knowing that it’s an experience she can trust.
One night some months ago, when my spouse was rocking our restless Curly Fries to sleep, she asked attempted some guided meditation. “Close your eyes,” my spouse said. Curly Fries obeyed. “Now think of some place happy,” my spouse instructed.
Curly Fries squeezed her eyes tighter as she thought, and then she said, “Park with Daddy.”
That is what hope means to us.