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To aspire is described by the dictionaries as directing one’s ambitions towards achieving something. To hope on the other hand, is described to be the expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen or be true. A subtle but profound difference! Aspirations are linked to determination, motivation and a ‘get-up-and-go’ orientation. They are linked to clearly definable behaviours such as planning and goal setting. They seem to be composed of elements of competition and with the desire to ‘get to the top’. The self is at the centre and the self is the prime mover. The notion of hope on the other hand seems to be much softer, hinting at possibilities and promises. Aspirations represent the setting of goals and then directing the course of events to achieve those goals. Hope on the other hand symbolises the recognition of an existing reality and then experiencing an optimistic yearning for the actualisation of that reality. While aspirations seem to require schemes and strategies, hope seems to rest upon faith, trust and the negation of despair.
Culminations and Destinies
When one talks about hope, one cannot but arrive at the doorstep of religion and spirituality and their eschatological descriptions of the ultimate destiny of humankind. Hope is integral to almost all religions particularly with reference to matters of culmination and the coming to fulfilment of one’s life. In theological terms hope is related to the recognition of one’s efforts and to being rewarded. It is in the hope of obtaining divine and heavenly rewards that day to day actions are given meaning, direction and purpose. What is interesting to note is that within religions that have historical eschatologies, where a beginning and an end are portrayed, hope has a futuristic orientation and is related to an outcome in the future. Hope in the Christian conception for example, is related to the positive anticipation of a divine reward to be obtained in the future. Hope along with Faith and Love is portrayed in the Christian faith as a fundamental virtue. Islam, Judaism and Christianity given their historical eschatologies, link daily actions to being judged and rewarded at a specific time in the future – such as the day of the second coming of Christ. Upon this judgement rests the individual’s hope of eternal pleasure (as described by Islam), eternal enjoyment of the radiance of the divine presence (as described by Judaism), or eternal Fellowship and Worship (as described by Christianity). These religions project a culmination of hope, at the end of time. In contrast, religions that have a cyclical eschatology do not link hope to the distant future. In fact hope does not seem to be related by these philosophies to time nor is it limited by temporal dimensions. Here I would like to draw upon two concepts from Indian philosophy to view hope, aspiration and work from a non-linear perspective.
Samsara and Karma: Hope as integral to action
The concepts of samsara and karma from ancient Indian philosophy provide a view that describes both hope and aspiration in a different light. Samsara describes life to be cyclical and portrays an individual’s existence as spanning lifetimes, beginning, progressing, ending, and beginning once again (Arulmani, 2007). Karma refers to the totality of all actions that the individual has been and presently is involved in. According to the doctrine of karma the actions of the past qualify the present and the actions of the present qualify the nature of the individual’s future existence. Life therefore is portrayed as non-linear. The approach to life is not a movement in a single direction from beginning to end. Instead Indian philosophy portrays life as being a cycle that perpetuates itself (Arulmani, 2009). A further concept that is of relevance is nishkama. Accordingly, the individual’s engagement with work and life’s duties must be deep and complete, but must be characterised by nishkama – the absence of passion. The karma yogi is an individual who strives to be completely immersed in the execution of obligations, without craving for the fruits of this labour. The motivation to work is not what one gains from it. Instead, one is required to perform one’s duty with the highest degree of effectiveness, without being driven by self-centered desires (Pederson, 1979). Seen from this perspective, commitment to duty is the prime motivator for action. Hope is an integral aspect of every action in the here and now.
How have these esoteric philosophic concepts influenced orientations to hope, aspiration and thereafter to work and career amongst ordinary Indians? Given below are interpretations of Indian studies that provide illustrations.
Sinha (1969) examined the aspirations of rural Indians. He reports that when asked to describe a ‘happy life’, his respondents referred initially to materialistic endeavours reflecting the aspiration to move to the city, acquire more and to improve the quality of their lives. But at their heart, the content of these responses reflected the hope that the manner in which they lived their lives would lead to spiritual fulfilment. Roy and Srivastava (1986) conducted a series of open-ended interviews with individuals and groups from rural backgrounds in North India. The sample included different castes as well as a cross section of Muslim groups. Content analysis of the responses revealed that although these were semi-literate people samsara, karma, and nishkama seemed to be integral to their orientations to life and work. For example, one of the respondents – a farmer, held the view that: “God gives rewards and punishments according to a man’s karma…I have no ambition in life. My duty is to plant my crops and tend them till they give a harvest. A good or bad harvest is not dependant on me – it is the divine Lord’s wish.” Another farmer in the study said: "All our sages have told us to love, trust and serve others...that is what I also try to do. This year maybe a bad harvest but another year maybe a good one. It is in the hands of god. My duty is to go on.” At a superficial level such an understanding of life may seem to be fatalistic, evoking a sense of inevitability. At a deeper level however, the notions of karma and samsara encourage action and promote the individual’s self-mediation of life situations. Karma places ‘effort’ at centre-stage and empowers the individual to shape the future through actions executed thoughtfully and wilfully in the present.
Hope, Aspiration and Career Guidance
An interesting psychological characteristic of hope is that it seems to come most strongly into play when difficulties arise! It is when one is confronted by the uncertainty of outcomes that one’s hopes for a preferred result become stronger. It is when we suffer misfortune and defeat that we experience a loss of hope. Indeed it is the bedside of desperately ill loved one that we fall to our knees and pray in the hope that our prayers will be answerd!
The initial relevance of hope to career counselling strongly arises in the context of uncertainty, doubt and loss. The nature of economic development today has caused the emergence of new occupational opportunities in some economies. But this has been at the cost of loss of jobs in other economies where are haunted by the spectre of redundancy and re-trenchment. Career choice is often influenced strongly by labour market cycles, pushing 'personhood' to the background. Entry into the world of work may in effect be dictated by the short-term interests of employers, where 'growth' becomes a double edged sword - benefiting a few but exploiting many others. The possibility of career development being an instrument for learning, personal growth and potential realisation could diminish. It is in such a context that the first objective of career counselling would be to instil hope and imbue career development with a positive spirit. Here, it is important to note that the instilling of hope is not the same as merely supporting the development of positive thinking, which refers to a psychological process of annulling pessimism. The instilling of hope from the career counselling point of view would be where career counselling acts as a service to empower the individual to find a happy blend between personal potentials and the labour market. At the same time, integral to the instilling of hope in the individual is the importance of the careers professional engaging with representatives of the labour market to give them reasons to move beyond considering the worker merely as a factor of production (Arulmani and Abdulla, 2007).
Having underlined the importance of instilling hope, it is also important for us to reckon with the notion of "false hope". In times of desperation and need, it is very possible that a hope becomes wrapped around a fantasy or a doubtful outcome. A critical role of the career counsellor in such a situation is to help the individual realise that a particular hope may not founded on reality. A retrenched worker or someone who has been made redundant would initially hold the (false?) hope that he or she could easily obtain a similar job once again. The career counsellor’s role here would be to help the individual assess the viability of such a hope. Perhaps, in such a situation, the instilling of hope may be related to widening the individual’s horizons and raising the possible necessity of a career shift. And then follow this up with sensitive career counselling support to re-plan a career path. A middle aged worker who is attempting to re-train and build a new career, when confronted by new learning methods and tasks would be at high risk to repeatedly experience despair. The role of career counsellor here would be to continually replenish the crucible of hope until the person is re-established and fruitfully re-engaged with the world of work.
It is here that aspirations re-enter the story of career development. Hope by itself is a wish, a desire, a dream. Aspiration by itself is a self-centred roaming from one acquisition to another that could ultimately result in the experience of loss of meaning and purpose. At the same time, the loss or the absence of aspiration could be the first inclination toward deeper and more debilitating levels of loss of hope that results in hopelessness. If hope is to be converted into reality and if despair is to be thwarted, it requires the individual to aspire to achieve. Hoping to recover from retrenchment, for example, is the first step. Aspiring to create a new career operationalizes this hope.
Within the cyclical conceptions of samsara and karma, development is not conceived as unidirectional, progressing from a beginning to an end. Instead, development is seen as a constantly regenerating cycle that builds upon earlier development. Hope is not an end product of a temporal sequence but integral to daily action, whereby, aspiration becomes the handmaiden of hope (Arulmani, 2011). Indeed, hope and aspiration are as intertwined with each other as are the flute and the breath that is required to bring forth its music.
Gifts make you weak
I conclude this writing with the re-telling of a well known aphorism.
Once upon a time, a group of very poor people lived on the coast of a country. Their grandparents had been poor as had been the parents of their grandparents and their parents.
Poverty had been the constant companion of this sad group across generations. Much had however been done by the rulers of this country to help these people rise up and climb out of the pit of their poverty. They were given food, clothing and shelter. Indeed the rulers of other lands seeing the plight of these poor people also began to send them gifts and offered relief of various kinds. The poor were thankful for the gifts but once the gifts ran out, they needed more. Nothing really changed.
The years rolled on. Children were born, they grew up, they too needed the constant support of their rulers and they remained poor.
Until one day a strange person appeared amongst these poor people. This person had no gifts to give, no relief measures to offer. All he had was a large, neatly rolled bundle.
“Gifts make you weak,” the person said to the people. “You don’t need others to feed you.” The people were astounded. “What are you saying?” they cried. “Without aid, without reservations, without subsidies, we will die.” “That is where you are wrong my friends,” the person said. “The answers to your freedom lie within you.”
So saying he took the people down to the seashore and there on the sand he unrolled his bundle. He asked some of the young people to hold one end firmly and then to everyone’s amazement he picked up the rest of bundle and flung it into the sea!” Nothing happened for awhile.
Then suddenly, “Something is pulling” one of the young people holding the ends of the bundle cried. “It’s becoming heavier,” shouted the other. “Now is the moment”, the person cried. “Pull it in… pull it in.”
Soon gleaming on the sand, their scales sparkling in the sun, lay dozens and dozens of fish. “Food… enough and more for all of us,” the people cried. “Yes”, the person said quietly, “and all you needed was a fishing net and learn to fish, to get your own food.”
Indeed for a career counsellor in today’s world, central to the instilling of hope is to draw the individual toward developing control by first embracing and then transforming what exists.