Hope, Love, and the Remedy for Despair, from Gabriel Marcel to Nick Cave

“To love anybody is to expect something from him, something which can neither be defined nor foreseen; it is at the same time in someway to make it possible for him to fulfill this expectation.”

Hope, Love, and the Remedy for Despair, from Gabriel Marcel to Nick Cave

The capacity for hope is not merely a hallmark of human consciousness — it is the supreme umbilical cord between consciousnesses. It is to place your hope in someone else, and instantly link the destinies of self and others in a loving and persistent recognition of interdependence. Every form of love is an expression of hope. Hope is the result of true sincerity. This is what makes us fully human.

A cynic would hasten to retort that this openhearted expectancy is precisely what makes hope a portal to disappointment — but cynicism is, of course, the terror of sincerity, the cowardly attempt at self-protection from the heartache of unmet hope. If we are serious about the evolution of consciousness — and of our understanding of consciousness — we must place hope at the helm.

From a French science textbook of the 19th century, light distribution is observed on soap bubbles. Prints available.

It has taken us four centuries to revise the dangerous Cartesian reductionism of “I think, therefore I am” into a version of “I feel, therefore I am” as neuroscience is reaching beyond the brain to illuminate our conscious experience as a full-body phenomenon. The next frontier might be “I hope, therefore we are” — hope is the poetics of conscious interbeing, transforming the other from object to subject, the way poetry subjectifies the universe.

French playwright and philosopher Gabriel Marcel (December 7, 1889–October 8, 1973) explores this with uncommon intellectual elegance and sensitivity in his 1962 book Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope (public library). Challenging the ordinary understanding of otherness as absolute — as a clear demarcation between person and person — Marcel reframes it as a relative position, oriented by hope:

A relationship between me and the other person can only be mediated through his presence. Loving someone is to expect something in return. This expectation is not possible nor predicted. However, it makes it possible for him for it to happen. Although it might seem paradoxical, expecting someone to do something is actually expected to happen. But the reverse is true. To expect more than you can is to be unable to provide for the person. Then it is in some manner to deny him of or take away from him in advance, what is certain to be a possibility of creating or inventing. [himself]. It seems that we only can speak of hope when there is interaction between the giver and the receiver, which is what is essential for spirituality.

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To love is to anticipate by Corita Kent, based on Marcel’s writings. Screen print in serigraph. Corita Art Center.

This dialogue between giving and receiving, Marcel intimates, is the natural gateway to self-transcendence as giver and receiver enter a kind of disinterested and nonjudgmental love — love beyond demand and neediness, which are problems of self-concern and self-reference, problems not of expectation but of the judgment of expectation. His words are:

Only there is such love, and it’s precisely here that hope can be found.


One could say that hope can be described as the presence of a soul who has been sufficiently absorbed into communion in order to achieve the transcendent act.

Dorothy Lathrop (1922) Art Prints available.

Viewed as self-transcendence, hope becomes a compassionate exchange not only between two people but between all people — an exercise in “widening our circles of compassion,” to borrow Einstein’s lovely phrase. Marcel gained this understanding on the whetstones of Nazi terror in France during World War II. He addressed the question of whether or not it is possible to keep hope alive amid such despair. (Meanwhile, his compatriot Albert Camus was polishing his impassioned conviction that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”) To those who feel imprisoned by despair, for whom to hope appears utterly beyond their power, Marcel answers with the ultimate, most lucid and luminous antidote to cynicism, which is at bottom a form of alienation from life and each other:

Simply the fact that you asked me this question is enough to create a first breach in your prison. In reality it is not simply a question you ask me; it is an appeal you address to me, and to which I can only respond by urging you not only to depend on me but also not to give up, not to let go, and, if only very humbly and feebly, to act as if this Hope lived in you… What is important to understand thoroughly is that if it is shifted to the level of intersubjectivity, the problem changes its nature: the despairing person ceases to be an object about which one asks [and]He is restored to his status as a subject and, at the same, is integrated into a live relation with the men of the world, which he was previously cut off from.

Dorothy Lathrop (1922) art Available as both a printed copy and stationery card.

The year Gabriel Marcel died, as entire nations were cutting themselves off from each other in the Cold War’s atmosphere of mutual terror, E.B. White wrote a lovely letter to someone who lost all faith in humanity, pondering the question of hope among pervasive despair. It’s been half a century since then. Nick Cave took up the subject in answering a young father’s question about how not to taint his small son with his own loss of hope and faith in humanity, his growing cynicism, his despair. Cave writes:

Cynicism is not a neutral position — and although it asks almost nothing of us, it is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. It is, in my opinion, the easiest and most widespread of all evils.

This is because I spent a lot of my childhood treating the world and its people with contempt. I found it both seductive and indulgent. Truth be told, I wasn’t yet old and didn’t know what lay ahead. I didn’t have the ability to see the future, think ahead, or be self-aware. I just didn’t know.

Cave, who is looking at his life-readjusting collision with loss from which he can learn, adds:

To learn the value of life and the goodness inherent in people, it took devastation. To understand the desperate need for help, it took devastation. To understand mortal value and to find the hope that it deserved, you had to go through devastation.

David Byrne’s Art from A History of the World, in Dingbats

An epoch of devastations and triumphs after Leonard Bernstein made his largehearted, life-tested case against the cowardice of cynicism and Maya Angelou observed that “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Cave pits cynicism against hope:

Hopefulness, unlike cynicism and skepticism, is earned and makes demands on us. It can sometimes feel the most isolated and indefensible place on Earth. It is not neutral. It can be adversarial. Cynicism can be destroyed by this warrior emotion. Each redemptive or loving act, as small as you like… keeps the devil down in the hole. It says that the earth and its inhabitants are worthy of protection. It believes that the world is worthy of belief. It becomes apparent over time.

Complement with Jane Goodall on the deepest wellspring of hope, Rebecca Solnit’s classic manifesto for lucid hope in dark times, and Hermann Hesse’s response to a young man who had lost hope after World War I, then revisit Nick Cave on the paradox of creativity and poet May Sarton on the cure for despair.

Giving = Being Loving

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