Marcel on Hope

Hope%20is%20the%20Answer - Marcel on Hope
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Hope is a fickle thing.  Some extoll it as a saving grace in trying times while others decry it as a cruel deception.  Often described as fleeting and other times as enduring, it always appears to signify an affectively powerful experience.  It can inspire courage, motivation, and sustain a sense of faith, meaning, and purpose.  Hope seems to support a feeling of confidence in one’s self and the future.  In these ways, among others, hope may be said to underlie a general sense of psychological well-being. 

In today’s turbulent world, however, hope seems easily dashed.  Daily reports about a sluggish economy, lack of opportunities, and failed leadership in Washington leaves many Americans feeling insecure, without direction, and vulnerable to the uncertainties of the future.  The unfettered optimism of generations past seems all but gone.

In its stead, a sense of demoralization has crept into the American psyche and besieged many of its citizens.  This seems particularly true when examining the types of struggles many individuals bring to psychotherapy.  Characterized by hopelessness, helplessness, and loss of meaning, Frank and Frank (1991) further define demoralization as “to deprive a person of spirit, courage, to dishearten, bewilder, to throw a person into disorder or confusion.”  Though this language is quite distinct from the nomenclature of the DSM, it nonetheless captures the plight of many.    

In the context of demoralization, a closer examination of the phenomenon of hope may prove fruitful in understanding and working with psychotherapy patients.  To guide this exploration, I rely on the insights derived from the French philosopher and playwright, Gabriel Marcel.

In his essay, A Metaphysics of Hope, Marcel (1962) introduced the concept of hope as it emerges within the context of a trial.  He described the experience of a trial as enduring a form of captivity or imprisonment which restricts one’s agency and results in a sense of deprivation.  Shrouded in the darkness of the trial, hope represents a light, a yearning to be delivered from the trial.  Marcel (1962) suggested such trials could be caused by constraints of illness, exile, or slavery.  Our current cultural malaise may also reflect such a form of captivity. 

Confined to the limitations of one’s trial can breed a sense of despair.  Marcel (1962) argued only when the temptation to despair is present can hope emerge.  Marcel (1967) described despair within a spatial-temporal depiction of experience as a “closing or…the experience of time plugged up.  The man who despairs is the one whose situation appears to be without exit” (p. 281).  Both space and time collapse around the despairing person in a manner that reinforces the experience of captivity.  Despair obscures any possibilities for a different future as time freezes in the perceived permanence of the present conditions. 

Unable to see a way out of the present trial, despair can lead to a sense of desperation and eventually a giving up.  This giving up is often marked by a capitulation to apathy and a forsaking of one’s integrity.  Feeling fractured and powerless, the despairing person often withdraws from life into isolation and alienation from others.  From this perspective, Marcel (1967) noted hope refers to the “hope of returning home, of finding one’s own way again” (p. 282); to restore that which was deprived during the trial and reclaim meaning and value for one’s life.  In other words, hope facilitates a restoration of morale.

The manner in which this occurs appears to follow a creative path.  That is, hope appeals to a creative power to find a way.  Accordingly, Marcel (1962) stated:

It might be said that in a sense hope is not interested in the how:  and this fact shows how fundamentally untechnical it is, for technical thought, by definition, never separates the considerations of ends and means.  An end does not exist for the technician, if he does not see approximately how to achieve it.  This, however, is not true for the inventor or discoverer who says, ‘There must be a way’ (p. 51). 

By relaxing into and engaging with this creative process the hopeful person overcomes the stagnation of despair by moving forward as new possibilities unfold.   

This creative process is not a solitary act.  Rather, it involves a giving and a receiving, which Marcel (1962) observed as a central feature of spiritual life.  Hope brings forth a communion with others as well as transforms the bond that unites one to oneself.  As such, Marcel (1962) asserted, “hope is always associated with a communion, no matter how interior it may be.  This is actually so true that one wonders if despair and solitude are not at bottom necessarily identical” (p. 58).  Hope overcomes alienation as it leads to a sense of communion that creates an us comprised in fellowship. 

Hope accordingly aims “at reunion, at recollection, at reconciliation” (Marcel, 1962, p. 53) out of the trial that irrevocably transforms one’s sense of self and relations to others.  Hope draws people together and reinforces a sense of strength and fortitude in living a meaningful and valued life. 

In this way, the apex of hope is formulated as “I hope in thee for us” (Marcel, 1962, p. 60).  Fundamentally, for Marcel, hope is ontologically intersubjective and therefore to hope is to live in hope with others.  This intersubjective understanding of hope reveals the interdependency of humankind, not only in communicating shared meaning, but also in creating a sense of belonging, comfort, and at-home-ness in an otherwise precarious and uncertain world. 

Hope may not be the panacea to counteract a sense of demoralization, but it does offer insights to inspire clinical interventions to address the psychological distress associated with demoralization.  Hope serves as a wellspring that is characterized by a renewal; it implies a return and simultaneously the forging of something completely new.  Liberation from one’s trial “is never a simple return to the status quo, a simple return to our being, it is that and much more…an undreamed-of promotion, a transfiguration” (Marcel, 1962, p. 67).  Hope is a transcendent act that leads to a vital regeneration and restoration of psychological well-being.

— Mark McKinley


Frank, J.D. & Frank, J.B.  (1991).  Persuasion and healing. 3rd edition.  Baltimore, MD:  John Hopkins University Press.

Marcel, G.  (1962)  Homo viator:  Introduction to a metaphysics of hope.  New York, NY:  Harper Torchbooks.

Marcel, G.  (1967).  Desire and hope.  In N. Lawrence and D. O’Connor (Eds.), Readings in Existential Phenomenology, pp. 277-285.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice-Hall Inc.

Marcel, G.  (1995).  The philosophy of existentialism. Trans. Manya Harari.  New York, NY:  Carol Publishing Group.

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