“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “that perches in the soul.” The avian image is both lovely and apposite, for as a bird goes winging off at the first loud noise or sight of a predator, so hope—an aspect of desire, a wish that something, and usually something good, will happen—typically flies out the window as often as it lands on one’s shoulder. If something isn’t outright impossible, it’s possible to hope for it, though the likelihood of its happening lessens the closer to impossible it comes: living to one hundred, let’s say, following a life of three packs of smokes and a porterhouse every day.
The thing with feathers, if you are of a religious bent, is really faith, the cast of mind that allows us to accept the notion that winged angels inhabit the heavens—and, Wim Wenders tells us in his film Wings of Desire, libraries. Faith differs from hope in several respects, although both reside in the same semantic domain. One important difference is that faith hinges on belief: the belief that whether something can be detected and measured or not, it exists, such as an eternal afterlife overseen by an omniscient deity; the belief that some inherent wisdom drives American voters to do the right thing always. A grade-school student, asked to define the term by the pioneering psychologist William James, put it this way: “Faith is when you believe something that you know ain’t true.”
Faith turns not only on belief but also on certainty. I hope, as millions of people do, that I’ll win the Powerball pick. There’s nothing certain about that, just a fond thought. Were I to say that I have faith that I will win the Powerball, I would commit a grammatically permissible but essentially nonsensical utterance, unless, that is, I had a fix in with the lottery commissioner and knew without doubt that all that dough was coming my way. The point of that certainty is perhaps nowhere more clearly made than in the witticism attributed to Samuel Johnson that marrying anew after a divorce represents the triumph of hope over experience, whereas—and no offense to believers—the belief in an eternal life in climate-controlled splendor better illustrates the triumph of faith over what we know to be verifiably true by observation.
With certainty comes trust, the root meaning of the Latin fidere, which gives us a rare nonreligious use of the word faith, namely that found in the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution: “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.” In this secular sense, that faith is not always certain: some states have, after all, allowed legal slavery, while same-sex marriage and interracial unions have met resistance across state lines.
In Christian theology, to faith and hope is appended love. Says Saint Paul, “the greatest of these is love.” Or, to quote the eminent philosopher Jerry Garcia, “Love isn’t all you need—but it’s most of it.” Add on hope, and even faith, and it’s more of it still.