Sunday, June 07, 2009

Work Without Hope ... Not!

"All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair -
The bees are stirring - birds are on the wing -
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

- "Work without Hope"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
21 February 1825

The above seems a little overwrought, but who hasn't felt that way from time to time? If you don't have hope, everything sucks and it's hard to get started.

Coleridge doesn't describe what he feels hopeless about; maybe he's suffering form a dread and terminal disease, or maybe he's just having the teenage angst that seems mildly comical once it's passed (which makes it no less painful while being experienced. But still: comical.) Or maybe, he's just doing the hard work of writing a nicely contructed poem about the hopelessness that makes it hard to do work. The contradiction is cute!

Whether Coleridge was being petty and whiney, or cosmic and insightful, the larger point (whether he intended it or not) reminds me of Viktor Frankl's great book "Man's Search For Meaning", in which the psychiatrist and concentration-camp survivor describes how, in his hellish experience, those without hope that their lives have meaning soon perished while those in a physically similar situation, but with hope that there's some meaning to what's going on, survive.

Fortunately, most of us are a lot better off than prisoner Frankl and sad Coleridge. We can draw upon their widsom by seeking a good start to each day: think about what you hope for, what gives the moment meaning. Start small, such as a kiss from your lovely wife and a cup of coffee. In my experience, once you hope for something relatively attainable, it gets your energy flowing so you can work up to bigger things: brekfast, a neat desk, something to write about, another leaf in the garden and so on ... up to world peace and a good joke.

We don't have to solve all our problems all at once, but we do need to have a little hope and a little meaning. I wonder if Coleridge and Frankl found hope and meaningfulness in their writing about the problem?

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