In April this year, during an interview about my book, The Boy from Boadua, the host asked me how I define hope. I didn’t have a ready-made answer so I quickly concocted one that, in hindsight, can be charitably described as less-than-coherent. In another interview a week later, I was asked the same question. Once again, I was stumped. I gave a variation of the answer I had provided in the first interview. Afterwards, I wondered why both interviewers had asked me that same question. The reason, I later learned, was that April is the National Month of Hope, a time when people are invited to share triumph-over-adversity stories.
I always look back on those two interviews with some degree of trepidation. They were the very first for my book, and the post-event anxiety stems from the fact that both interviews were on live television, where there are no opportunities for do-overs. On each occasion, the interview could easily have turned into a complete disaster.
Since then, I have given a considerable amount of thought to that question. To me, hope essentially boils down to this: the capacity to keep blind faith. Most of us have found ourselves at some junctures in our lives when we have had to confront some monumental adversity. Having the ability to find the right way to deal with these occurrences determines whether we overcome the obstacles, or succumb to them.
When, as a young boy, I began to plot a way out of my dusty village in Ghana to escape the harsh environment into which I had been born, I really had no idea how hopeless my situation was, and how slim my chances of success were. But a combination of naiveté and blind faith kept me going on a journey that was filled with one humongous obstacle after another.
I should say that although I was hopelessly naïve, my faith was not completely blind. We all hear the frequent advice to avoid naysayers and think positive. In my childhood, I was blessed to spend a lot of time around a man, my father, who had one of the most uncluttered minds I have ever come across. Life had dealt him some very bad cards, but he never dwelt on any of his misfortunes. He simply woke up each morning and went out to make the best out of whatever scarce tools he had. I acquired an internal compass by watching his approach to life.
Even with that, I still struggle at times with the giant river full of powerful, negative currents that are constantly swirling around us in the world nowadays. But that compass always kicks in, serving as a stabilizer for me. It is a personal instrument that I believe everyone can develop by learning one basic fact of life: that the world is way too complex for any of us to think that we can have any meaningful control over many of the negative forces that come at us. Once this realization of the futility of fixation on factors we can’t control sets in, the mind is freed to focus solely on the things that we are able to influence. I force myself to undergo this mental decluttering exercise continuously.
In his magnificent book, The Wager, David Grann describes a scene where a group of shipwrecked English sailors embark on a desperate effort to make it back home. The men had been stranded on a desolate island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia for two months with no shelter and little food. The only choice they had was to retrieve pieces of wood from their destroyed ship to construct a small boat that they hoped could transport them three thousand miles, across one of the most tempestuous seas, to Brazil, about the only place where they could possibly seek help for a safe passage to England. With scarce resources, improper tools, and unable to summon any strength from their emaciated bodies, their situation was beyond hopeless. Grann wrote that “Yet they were compelled onward by that mysterious narcotic: hope.”
Reading The Wager made me think of hope from a slightly different perspective. In spite of their grim circumstances, the men were said to be fueled by their intense desire to return home to the wives, children, mothers and fathers that they deeply loved. Each of them had something to try to live for. Those positive thoughts about their loved ones sharply focused their minds, saving them from the fatalism that would have been the most natural reaction in their situation.
My childhood circumstances were nowhere near as dire as those of the stranded sailors, but in some sense many of my actions during my journey were similarly driven by that mysterious narcotic. I was intensely passionate about the goals I had set for myself, and was willing to make almost any sacrifice to achieve them. In the process, I had become so deeply engrossed in the mission and so acutely focused that there were no openings in any of my sensory organs for negative signals to penetrate.
In essence, hope, for me, is ridding oneself of unnecessary distractions and channeling one’s energies instead on things that keep the mind properly focused.