A long time ago in Manhattan, a wise friend caught my attention with this sad story—he claimed that hope too can be a demon, when used by the ego as a tool to keep us locked into demeaning situations. As an example, he explained that almost a quarter of a century ago, his beloved twin sister had married a charmer who had swept her off her feet. Everything was hunky-dory until their first child was born. Then the trouble began: he began to subject her to a mix of physical and emotional abuse, played around with other women on his business trips, and to top it all, told shameless lies about everything from the trivial to the profound.
Since they belonged to a fundamentalist Christian community down south that frowned on women standing up to their men, no matter their low caliber, his talented but quiet sister, who could have made something of herself in the art world, had stayed in the marriage. This despite my friend’s loving offers to support her if she left the creep. The guy was so wily, my friend added, that he could easily tell when his wife was getting to the end of her rope. Then he would turn on the magic and convince her that he had seen the error of his ways and was ready to transform. And so the years rolled on, and she lived on with him in the hope that TOMORROW he would change. Two more children were born, and by this time, she was too dispirited and beaten down to make a fresh start. If the guy had not died in a car collision a couple of years ago, my friend said dryly, she’d probably still be pandering to and defending him.
Until I heard this tale, I had not realized how the ego can co-opt a beautiful emotion like hope for its own sinister purposes. Besides, although the details were different, I had gone through a similar experience. Fortunately I had had the guts to cut loose when the discomfort of living with someone whose values were so divergent from mine outweighed my fear of being penniless and ostracized as a divorcee. And yes, in my case too, hope had played the role of demon—for I too had hoped for years and years that things would get better, and so I moved heaven and hell and did everything I could to make our life harmonious. Since I was an asset in many ways, and made life interesting for him, it served my partner to allow me to believe he was ready to change, when in fact he had no such intention. (Come to think of it, I don’t think he could have changed, because transformation involves possessing integrity, courage and a willingness to see that we are wrong and causing damage to others. The three steps of change: first awareness, then acceptance, and finally action). And so I too had remained trapped in a claustrophobic and demeaning situation for too long.
In the end, words are only labels we slap on to experiences and events because we are unable to communicate effectively without them. (Only the true sage who has transcended duality can radiate wisdom in silence.) But it is not necessarily hope we have to guard against, but our own egoic fear of breaking free of a matrix that, while painful and disturbing, is paradoxically also comforting and familiar. This man’s sister, for instance, hoped for decades that her husband would change, against all evidence to the contrary, and lost her youth and vitality in the process. Who knows what she might have been able to do in that quarter century had she been bubbling with joy and vitally alive?
We live in a dualistic world where everything has at least two faces. The bright side of hope is uplifting and constructive; its dark side is when we hurt ourselves by remaining in unhealthy situations or relationships, all the while hopeful that things will change, despite knowing deep down they won’t. What is it that keeps us in the stew of passivity? Fear, in one word, for a known devil, as the old saw goes, is better than an unknown angel.
On the path to moksha, liberation from all desire and fear, it is critical that we face reality head-on. True, we might mess up from time to time, but we can always make amends. But the one thing we can never get back is the precious time we fritter away hoping things will be different, that our partner or whoever will eventually see the light. Instead, once we are certain we are being played by a callous trickster who cares nothing for our happiness and everything for his, we could put the lid on the situation, no matter what we have to go through in order to do this, and invest our energy in forging a happy and constructive life for ourselves. To rely on others for something as precious as our happiness is nothing less than foolish and cowardly. (And this of course works both ways: some women do the same to their men).
Dwell, Guatama Buddha said more than two thousand years ago, you are the light itself. Do not depend on others; the Dharma (your highest calling) is the light; do not depend on anything other than the Dharma. Advaita assures us that our essence is One, but in relative reality, we are made differently and must therefore find our own way to grow into spiritual warriors.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who helps us to get rid of all unnecessary baggage, so we can walk free and confident into the blazing Spiritual Heart!