Fluttering at the Bottom of the Jar

Do you hope for things? Or do you wish for them?

There’s a big difference.

I was a young teacher of the English language when, one day in front of a class, I realized I didn’t understand the distinction between “I hope” and “I wish.”

At least I wasn’t initially able to explain it to my students beyond dryly relaying the grammatical information that “hope” requires a present- tense modal verb such as “will” or at least an implied future, whereas “wish” requires a conditional modal such as “would” or “could.” The grammar was easy, but it took a little thought to arrive at the meaning.

This was very long ago–so long ago that there  were very few English as a Second Language teachers’ programs. I had sidled into the world of language-as-opposed-to-literature on the sly with my master’s degree in English literature. So there were many things I didn’t really know how to teach.

I had to enter the gnarled, shaded wood of the English language all by myself–feel each knotty branch and follow each distracting twig, trip over every protruding irregular root, get lost 10 times a day–to work it all out so that I could then explain it, as best I could, to my students.

I was in those days a less optimistic person than I am today, so it took me a while to arrive at understanding the broken-heartedness of “wish” and the open mind of “hope.”
“Wish” means that you don’t believe you can get what you desire: I wish you were here with me; I wish the team would win, for once.
“Hope,” simply, means that you believe success is possible: I hope I can see you Sunday; I hope they’ll fire that damned coach.

But it was literature that came to my aid, in the end. For, as the myth of Pandora, with her golden box (or jar) and Emily Dickinson scribbling in her room remind us, hope is the last thing we release from the container, whether jar or box, of our souls. Hope is the thing that flutters weakly but never quite dies, the thing that has no words but never fails to feel the heart of the matter. Emily (one always feels that one can call her that, so intimate is her verse) wrote:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —

And never stops — at all.

Hope is formless. You don’t know what exactly your success will look like if it ever comes. But if you’re still alive, you can feel an inchoate refusal to give up, a willingness to take that one more step just to see if the world looks different from the new angle.

And sweetest–in the gale–is heard

And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

When we lose hope–or the darkness, the storm within us, is unbearable–our reason tells us that there is no use in further struggle. It’s over. But a bird is blessedly unreasonable, and so is hope.

In this travail of our country, it is hard to hope.

But hope is the thing with feathers. I keep feeding my hope with action, and demonstrations, and postcards, and telephone calls that, at the least, nourish it for the next step. And I avoid saying “wish,” because I want to think that my hope for better times is possible.

Note: If you search for “Hope is the thing with feathers” online in “Images,” you’ll find hundreds of hand-made illustrations of it. It seems a lot of people out there need to hear about the thing with wings, need to create something about it, need to hold it in their hands. By one Kelly Caroline out there in the universe, I offer this evidence.
Hope is the thing with feathers

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