The Virtue of Hope

Dr. Silkworth,

I remember the meeting I first experienced hope in AA. I remember the night, the street, the church. I have no memory of what anybody said. But I remember the sensation that came over me. That’s all it was, a sensation. But it was the beginning of my recovery. My condition was grim. Alone, broke, homeless, unemployable, scared, and terribly depressed, I was enveloped in darkness. I needed to see some light at the end of the tunnel I was traversing. I saw it in a bunch of drunks.

I didn’t know it then, but AA experience was coming alive in me. AA’s story is that of hope being born out of despair. That’s the story of Rowland H. after being told by Jung there was no hope for him (Big Book, p. 26). It’s Bill W.’s story after being told the same by Dr. Silkworth (Big Book, p. xxv). In AA, hopelessness is defining of the type of alcoholism from which we suffer. We are hopeless alcoholics. As he later wrote the Swiss doctor (The Language of the Heart, p. 279), the idea that the alcoholic was hopeless from a scientific point of view and that his only hope lay in a spiritual experience was what inspired Bill W. to start the movement that eventually became AA.

If hopelessness is inherent in our condition, so is hope intrinsic to our recovery: “Each day, somewhere in the world, recovery begins when one alcoholic talks with another alcoholic, sharing experience, strength, and hope” (Big Book, p. xxii). That sharing is at the very heart of our meetings, as the AA Preamble suggests: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others recover from alcoholism.”

Hope, then, is an essential spiritual principle in AA. This is so as regards both the fellowship and the program. It is not surprising, therefore, that references to hope and its opposite in hopelessness should be so frequent in our two basic texts, where we find 59 occurrences of the former and 27 of the latter.

As a careful reading of these passages will reveal, however, not every experience of hope reveals the practice of a spiritual principle. Hope is not always spiritually grounded. Indeed, most of the time it isn’t. Rowland H. at first found hope in Jung’s words that a spiritual experience could deliver him from his alcoholism, since he was a devout church member, only to have his hope dashed by Jung’s caveat that church would not necessarily bring about such an experience. His initial hope was unfounded. What then is hope, and how is it practiced in AA?

The term hope stands for three things. The first is a natural human capability. We all have an innate capacity to experience hope. That we have it implies that we need it, that it serves a necessary function. At some point in our development, we become conscious of the fact that things are not, or may not be, as we would wish them to be. At that point, our ability to hope that they will is instantiated. It comes online, to use a contemporary expression from the world of technology. Our experience of it may help us to survive a difficult situation—a serious illness, for instance—or to persevere in a challenging course of action—getting a college degree, learning a trade, or working the Steps, let us say. Our hope imparts us with a sense that its object is attainable, even when appearances might seem to indicate otherwise.

The second thing that hope stands for, then, is a feeling, an emotion the potential for which is also inherent in us. Hope arises as a feeling when we construe, perceive, or see the future as holding favorable prospects for the attainment of a good we desire but whose attainment is in question. In this, hope is the direct opposite of certain kinds of fear and related emotions like anxiety, which see the future in terms of unfavorable prospects. It is also opposed to despair, when those prospects appear inevitable or seem to have already materialized.

The third thing hope stands for is a virtue, a trait the potential for which is also innate but which can only be developed and take root in our character through long and consistent practice. As a virtue, that is, as an excellent human quality, hope enables us to hope for the right things in the right situations and in the right ways, thus making the experience of the emotion properly fit its object.

As with all virtues and emotions, in AA “right” signifies that which is God’s will for us. That’s what makes it a spiritual principle. Because it looks forward in positive anticipation of what is to be but which is not entirely (or at all) within our power to bring about, hope is closely connected with faith, especially that aspect of faith which trusts in God’s providence and grace. This makes it a pivotal virtue in Step 2, where we come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.

The hope inherent in this belief is an antidote to the despair we might otherwise fall into after Step 1, where we have admitted that we are powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable. We have admitted what AA has been telling us is true: that there is no hope for us in medicine, science or in any other human power. We have to place our hope in a greater power. The faith we gradually develop in Step 2 enables us to do that.

In Step 9, our hope is grounded in the Promises (Big Book, pp. 84-85), whose source is that greater power. It is the power we now come to understand as the God who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Those promises will materialize, we are assured—and thus our hopes realized—if we work for them.

As a virtue, then, hope is not a matter of wishful thinking or indulgent expectation. It is a principle we need to practice. The object of our hope requires faith and work, or as we are repeatedly told, a faith that works.

[Image: Dr. William D. Silkworth (“Silky"), director of Towns Hospital for alcoholics in NYC, who introduced Bill W. to the idea that alcoholism was a disease but, after repeated failures to cure him, told him that medicine held no hope for an alcoholic of his kind. Bill finally found hope in the spiritual experience he later had in the hospital after Ebby had carried the message to him. Dr. Silkworth wrote “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book. To hear it read, please click on link.]

Big Book
"Each day, somewhere in the world, recovery begins when one alcoholic talks with another alcoholic, sharing experience, strength, and hope." – Big Book

12&12"If that degree of humility could enable us to find he grace by which such a deadly obsession could be banished, then there must be hope of the same result respecting any other problem we could possibly have." – 12&12 

St. Francis of Assisi
"Lord, make me a channel of thy peace . . . that where there’s despair, I may bring hope." – St. Francis Prayer   

Life Recovery Bible
"Suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope." – Romans 5:3-4   

Cicero
"While there’s life, there’s hope." – Cicero

Dante Alighieri
"Without hope we live on in desire." – Dante

Alexander Pope
"Hope springs eternal in the human heart." – Alexander Pope   

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"To live without hope is to cease to live." – Fyodor Dostoevsky   

Shelley
"If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" – Percy Bysshe Shelley 

Kant
"Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for." – Immanuel Kant  

Emily Dickinson
"Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all." – Emily Dickinson

Albert Einstein
"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." – Albert Einstein  

T. S. Eliot"I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” – T. S. Eliot

Samuel Johnson
"What we hope ever to do with ease, we must first learn to do with diligence." – Samuel Johnson   

Anonymous"Hope works in these ways: it looks for the good in people instead of harping on the worst; it discovers what can be done instead of grumbling about what cannot; it regards problems, large or small, as opportunities; it pushes ahead when it would be easy to quit; it 'lights the candle' instead of 'cursing the darkness'." – Anonymous    

Calvin Coolidge
"Little progress can be made by merely attempting to repress what is evil. Our great hope lies in developing what is good." – Calvin Coolidge    

Sanskrit proverb"Yesterday is but a dream, tomorrow but a vision. But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day." – Sanskrit Proverb   

William Penn
"Never give out while there is hope; but hope not beyond reason, for that shows more desire than judgment." – William Penn   

Robert Browning
"
Man partly is and wholly hopes to be." – Robert Browning   

C. S. Lewis"The troublesome fact, the apparent absurdity which can’t be fitted into any synthesis we have yet made, is precisely the one we must not ignore . . . There’s always hope if we keep an unsolved problem fairly in view; there’s none if we pretend it’s not there." – C. S. Lewis   

Herman Melville
"Hope is the struggle of the soul, breaking loose from what is perishable, and attesting her eternity." – Herman Melville

John Maxwell
"Where there is no hope in the future, there is no power in the present." – John Maxwell   

Michael Oakeshott
"Hope depends on finding some end to be pursued more extensive than mere instant desire." – Michael Oakeshott   

James S. Spiegel"To be hopeful is not necessarily to expect the best possible outcome in any given situation, but it is to think and behave in a way that maximizes the chances for a good outcome. Hope envisions and works for a worthy end, recognizing whatever obstacles may emerge and developing strategies to overcome them.”
– James S. Spiegel

Peter Kreeft"Hope is not merely our natural desire for happiness; everyone has that. Like faith, hope is our freely chosen affirmative response to a divine revelation: in the case of hope, our response to divinely revealed promises. Hope is faith directed to the future." – Peter Kreeft   

Robert C. Roberts
"Resignation is sort of a half-way house between hope and despair, a way of tolerating the future; hope a way of welcoming it." – Robert C. Roberts  

Tim Keller"There’s no way of getting through life unless you know how to get through suffering, and there’s no way of getting through suffering unless you have a living hope." – Tim Keller  

Catechism
"The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man." – Catechism of the Catholic Church  

Montague Brown"What we hope for, we are also willing to work for. If we hope to find someone to love, we try to make ourselves lovable by loving. We hope to be more just, generous, and forgiving, and so we work to be better human beings. We hope for peace on earth and try, in our own small ways, to make such peace a reality.”
– Montague Brown  

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts
"Gradually, as we become more God-centered than self-centered, our despair turns to hope." – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts   

PTP123"So long as we cling to any hope that we can drink normally or that there is an alternative answer to our drinking problem, we will not surrender. Here too, the AA message is paradoxical: hope is born out of our admission of hopelessness." – PTP123   

PTP4"It is in the process of climbing out of what is almost always a deep and a dark pit that the alcoholic regains hope and becomes receptive to the long-term spiritual solution." – PTP4  

Practice These: Hope - William C. Mattison
Practice These: Faith - LBB

For more PTP123 passages on hope, see pp. 76, 134, 138, 139, 154, 179, 210. For more PTP123 passages on hope, see pp. 76, 134, 138, 139, 154, 179, 210. For more PTP4, see pp. 18, 74, 134, 180, 188, 208, 242, 264, 286, 300, 303, 399, 406, 428; as emotion, 405; as theological virtue, 8, 381, 396; vs. hopelessness, 18, 228, 178, 398, 404. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on 164andmore.com and search hope and its cognates. On this site, see Sharing Experience, Strength & Hope, in Reflections.

Additional Resources

  1. Meditation for 04/29 in Twenty-Four Hours a Day
  2. Meditation for 06/04 in Al-Anon's Courage to Change
  3. “Hope,” chapter in Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues, by Robert C. Roberts. Includes helpful sections on relationship between hope and optimism and suffering and hope
  4. "Hope," chapter by William C. Mattison III in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, Editors
  5. “The Virtue of Hope: Eternity in This Life and the Next,” chapter in Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, by William C. Mattison III 
  6. "Hope/Wish," in The One-Minute Philosopher, by Montague Brown. Makes useful distinction between hoping and wishing
  7. "Hope," in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Editors. Secular psychology view

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