By Robert Kishaba, 2016 American Service Academies Program Alum
Hope is powerful. Its existence is undeniable, and its intimate involvement in our lives is similarly strong.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl articulates the necessity of hope through his time spent as a prisoner at various concentration camps during WWII. He supplied one particularly poignant example: between Christmas 1944 and New Year’s 1945 the camp’s sick ward experienced a death rate “beyond all previous experience,” not due to a food shortage or worse living conditions, but because, “the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas.” When this hope was unmet, prisoners found no reason to continue holding on, nothing to look forward to. When a mind lets go, so does its body.
Philosophers have dealt with the idea of “hope” for centuries, disagreeing on subtleties or on the definition altogether. Aristotle, for example, once said that hope “is a waking dream” (Laertius). Plato identified hope as a pleasure. To him, once a belief “inscrib[es] words in our soul,” and once “these words concern the future they are hopes.” (Brittain). Not every philosopher stayed as abstract as the earliest ones, however. In a twentieth century work A Philosophy of Hope, for example, hope must meet six criteria, including that it be “difficult to obtain” and that it “lies beyond the control of the one who hopes” (Schumacher). Others include a spiritual component; St. Thomas Aquinas defined hope as “…a future good, difficult but possible to attain…by means of the Divine assistance…on Whose help it leans.” Hope is difficult to pinpoint, but on some level I think we know “hope” when we experience it.
According to Frankl’s observation regarding a higher death rate after Christmas, hope is a choice. Hope, it appears, is capable of sustaining life. While every external factor may root against you, one single act of internal defiance can counteract it all. Hope is powerful indeed. However powerful, the end result is never guaranteed. One can hope with the fiercest passion for something to occur (or not occur), but it gives no assurances. Choosing hope is inherently risky, because it can cause one to become attached to an idea that will never actualize.
Hope is curious in this way: on one hand, it can save your life, and on the other, it may have no bearing on the outcome. For having such varying effects, hope requires many things of an individual: an unquenchable thirst for whatever one hopes for, a stubbornness to reject any outcome other than the one desired, and a genuine belief that the hope will come to fruition. Hope has the power to save, yet at the same time it guarantees nothing. But that is just it: people recognize that hope does not guarantee a result. In fact, the uncertainty of the situation is the whole reason for them to hope in the first place. Hope is purely an internal shift. Hope relates to the well-being of the individual, not their external context.
Frankl’s text depicts the prisoners awaiting liberation from the Allies. Trusting in the Allied front and hoping that they break through the German defenses could have been a reasonable thing, depending on the point in the war. Hearing news of the eventual Allied progression must have inspired hope for many. But while some were fortunate enough to live to see the liberation of their camp, most did not see that glorious day. In this way, hope has no timeline. No one knew when they would be saved—or rather, if they would be saved. Hope is a disposition, and trusting in the Allies permitted this attitude. The Allied forces were both a symbol and a reality. They represented the idea of freedom and eventually followed through tangibly. But before the war ended, the prisoners had no assurance of this. Whether in the next moment, day, or year, they hoped that the Allies would eventually come. There was no certainty of eventual freedom, but they knew that someone somewhere was actively fighting for them, and that supplied some with everything they needed in order to hope.
The Nazis used hope as a means to an end. They deceived their prisoners because people respond to hope. It was a tool, and a very effective one—this is hope in its unnatural state. In a way, hope should remain undisturbed; let a man hope freely and fully. To be involved with a man’s hope is to be involved intimately with his life. One ought not to give hope only to tear it away—this is truly heartbreaking and potentially life-taking. Hope is powerful in this way.
Yes, hope is uncertain. No, the outcome cannot be guaranteed. Yet in the words of Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to chose one’s own way.”
Robby Kishaba is currently a junior at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is a Political Science major with a Philosophy minor. He is involved in the Swing Dance Club and the Triathlon Team. He was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and is the youngest of five children. Robby is currently a Cadet Squadron Superintendent and hopes to pursue becoming a pilot upon graduation.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Spring 2017 newsletter articles are found here.