Your marriage, business, career, plan to end world hunger isn’t going so well. Two questions might come to mind: “How can I succeed?” and “Can I succeed?”

The first question focuses you on evaluating specific plans for their probability of success–hope in this plan or that. But drop that first word and you pop up to a higher level of analysis. “Can I succeed?” focuses on the choice of whether to be examining plans at all. If your answer is no, I can’t succeed, don’t bother looking for plans for doing so. If your answer is yes, it’s either because you have a plan in mind or are about to go look for one.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Last week I distinguished between hope as an answer and hope as a question. My point was that hope can be declared at different levels of analysis: One can have hope in a plan or hope that there is a plan. Hope as an answer is content to rest at the second level, “Well, I have hope that there is a plan. Period.” Hope as a question starts at this second level but does not stay there; instead, it inspires digging in to find the plan about which you can declare, “I have hope in this plan.”

The popular phrase “Where there’s a will there’s a way” can be interpreted at these same two levels of analysis. At the more abstract level it’s the argument that will is itself a way–will by itself is what it takes to succeed. At the less abstract level it’s a motivation to look for something that would satisfy the will.

When people say, “There must be a way,” they either mean, “I have confidence that there’s a way so I needn’t strive to find it,” or “I sure hope there’s a way, and I will now try to find it.”

The declaration that there must be a way can motivate the search for a way. People generally look harder for something they’re confident they’ll find than for something they doubt they’ll find. If I lack confidence that my keys are in my office, I’ll search more casually than if I’m absolutely certain they are in there.

Still, the declaration that there must be a way does not in itself guarantee the existence of a way. No amount of confidence will let me find my keys in my office when they’re really in the kitchen. Saying, “There must be a way to walk barefoot on the sun” does nothing to make such a stroll possible.

Hope as an answer is passive. It’s simply a declaration of will as though will is all it takes. Hope as a question is active. It declares will to find an answer if there is one to be found.

While I frown upon passive hope, I do understand the reasons why we would be drawn to it. I’ll talk about one reason next week. In the meantime, here’s a joke you’ve surely heard, one that makes the case for active hope.

One day during really stormy weather, a small town begins to flood. Everyone rushes to lifeboats and begins to flee. But in a church a priest sits on the altar and does not move. A man runs up to him.

Man: Father, come quickly, we have a lifeboat ready for you.

Priest: No, there is no need for me to flee. The lord will provide, and he will save me.

Man: Suit yourself.

A few hours later the water has risen up to the altar where the priest is standing. A lifeboat zooms through the door with a few men in it. One calls to the priest.

Man: Father, come quickly!

Priest: “No; the lord will provide, and he will save me.

So the lifeboat zooms off. A few hours later the water has risen up to the crucifix on the wall, which the priest is clutching. A lifeboat zooms in.

Man: Father, the town is flooding; you must come with us to safety.

Priest: No, the lord will provide. He will save me.

A few hours later the water rises up to the roof and the priest drowns. The priest has his chance to meet god face to face. He says:

Man: Lord, why didn’t you save me? I had so much faith.

God: What are you talking about!!!!!! I sent three bloody lifeboats!