On her blog “Everyone Has a Story,” Bird recently wrote about hope in midlife. She notes that in childhood, we all had hopes for what we would be when we grew up, in our twenties our hopes had to do with putting together a successful adult life, and in our thirties hopes for many of us centered on our children and families. The forties don’t come with such standard, age-determined hopes, though. Bird reports, “One of the real challenges I’m finding about being single in my forties is what to hope for.” Her kids are on their own and she has recovered from a difficult divorce. She had to work hard for a while to put her life back together, but now is financially stable and has a job she enjoys. She isn’t currently interested in a romantic relationship. So what should she hope for now? What should any of us hope for once we are in mid- or late adulthood and have our basic physical and emotional needs met?
We take different approaches to hope as we get older. Some of us are still building kingdoms–seeking fame or acclaim or wealth–but for most of us those baubles of success have lost their allure. If we have already been reasonably successful, to chase after more of the same seems greedy. It says more about the insecurities of those still pursuing such things late in life than it does about the value they have for us. Dr. Neel Burton writes “To hope for something is to make a claim about something’s significance to us, and so to make a claim about ourselves.” Hoping for additional fame, acclaim, or wealth in the last third of life may reveal that we’re the sort of people who can never be content with what we have.
Of course, there are those among us who haven’t had our physical or emotional needs met. Some don’t have sufficient income, or have significant health problems, or have lost those who provided us with support. We probably all hope that we can live comfortably, that we will not become disabled, that we won’t be lonely. Beyond that, though, what is there to hope for?
In their book Aging, Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney gave hope as one of three characteristics that characterizes older adults who experience the days of late life as precious gifts (the other two characteristics are humor and vision). Nouwen and Gaffney distinguish between wishes and hope. When we were young, we had wishes–we wished for promotions at work, or more money, or nicer possessions, or an attractive mate. As we age, though, we undergo a conversion from wishes to hope. Wishes are specific and concrete, but hope is more open-ended. These authors see hope as residing not so much in achievements as in relationships–our hope is based on our trust in others. They describe the conversion from wishes to hope as follows:
“Every time life asks us to give up a desire, to change our direction, or redefine our goals; every time we lose a friend, break a relationship, or start a new plan, we are invited to widen our perspectives and to touch, under the superficial waves of our daily wishes, the deeper currents of hope. (p. 71)”
So, have I slipped beneath surface wishes to enter the deeper, more steady stream of hope? I think I have fewer wishes and more hope than I once did; in particular, my faith in God was once more wish-oriented and now looks more like what Nouwen and Gaffney call hope. I’m still trying to understand the difference between the two, though. I’ll try to explore them more in a later post.