Understand the implications of high hopes

How much hope is enough? How much is too much?

Hope comes in different shades. We all hope for better lives for ourselves and our loved ones. This kind of hope — let’s call it “ambient hope” — is a light that shines just over your shoulder, not quite in your eyes, illuminating the path before you. Then there’s another kind of hope, “transient hope,” more intense, felt in the belly during certain life events. You sense it when you meet that special someone, interview for your dream job, bid on the perfect house, or send your meticulously edited application to your favorite university.

The dictionary’s definition of hope — “a wish accompanied by confident expectation of its fulfillment” — misses the point. Hope lies on a continuum, with two extremes. On one end, it’s a chunk of your own flesh that you slap down on a roulette table, win or lose. On the other, it separates man from beast, a product of our self-consciousness, our awareness of “future.” This hope is an amazing source of energy that propels us forward against all odds because maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be better.

Hope is the opposite of “living in the moment,” pop psychology’s favorite helpful hint.

Our oldest child has been applying to colleges, with certain institutions elevating in her mind to the status of mythical cloud cities, as untouchable as they are gilded. In the weeks and months between the application deadline and the online postings of acceptances, hope has been an electric charge filling our house, sometimes energizing but sometimes painful to the touch.

Throughout the process, I found myself dusting off a familiar mantra from my parents: “Well, honey, don’t get your hopes up.” As a parent myself, I know why we say these things. Hope can resolve with a coin toss. Heads rewards our optimism, while tails slaps us with the harsh reality that life sucks sometimes. We parents, objective and analytical creatures, know logically that the coin can land either side up, but it’s tails that plagues us. We’re compelled to shield our children from such disappointment, such pain, and we feel our kids’ pain as our own.

So we take precautionary measures for our children and ourselves. Just like we insist they wear a bike helmet, we say, “Don’t get your hopes up.” We set expectations with language like, “Other talented people want that job,” “There are lots of fish in the sea,” and “It’s a capricious process; your admissions officer might be having a rotten day.”

But do we do our kids a disservice with this hedging? I know people who spring from bed every morning and tackle life’s challenges with Stuart Smalley confidence: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” These go-getters are indomitable, popcorn-ing across life’s stage like Up with People dancers. They paint their walls with fortitude and fill their rooms with so much ambient hope that occasional letdowns stand no chance.

If I were to exude such behavior, would I help equip my kids with great reserves of hopefulness? Perhaps, but that ain’t me, and I can’t fake it. My children would see right through my performance.

Therefore, I say, “Hope springs eternal, kids … but let’s not get too carried away.”

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