It’s Beirut, late 1980s, and Brian Keenan is blind-folded and imprisoned in a dark and dirty basement. He has no idea where he is, whether he’ll live another day, and if he’ll ever return to his Northern Island home and family.

Keenan went to Beirut to lecture in English at the American University. With civil war raging, friends urged him not to take the job. With typical Irish humour, he told them he wasn’t at all worried because, after all, he’d grown up in Belfast during the ‘Troubles’.

Just before 8.00 am, Keenan set out for the university and was kidnapped off the street by the Islamic Dawn. Little was known about his captors, other than that they were part of the militant Hezbollah movement. Now Keenan is a hostage.

Since his capture he’s been moved from location to location. He lies or sits blindfolded on stinking mattresses, sweating in Mediterranean summer heat and shivering in winter cold. His food is meagre, water never enough. He stinks because his accommodation is filthy. Again and again he’s beaten and tortured. His only comfort is being imprisoned with John McCarthy, a fellow hostage. Though very different in background, they bond together. Neither knows if they will ever be released, and yet, at times, they imagine that one day soon their captivity will end. Keenan later called such a time a ‘high ground of hope’.

Then one of their guards, Abed, comes in. He is unusually pleasant, and announces that today the men are both getting new clothes. John is exhilarated. This is surely the best of signs. Keenan, though, is flooded with depression and anger. The new clothes do not mean early release but exactly the opposite. He wrote later: ‘They plainly implied to me that we were staying for a much longer time than our hope had led us to believe’.[1]

I read those words nearly 20 years ago, and they’ve never left me. Keenan had been on his high ground of hope but new clothes told him no release was coming. With hope gone he collapsed into despair.

For those who want to know what eventually happened with Keenan, I’ve added a note at the foot of this blog.

Keenan needed hope. We all do. But why do we need hope, and how do we find it?

Hope generates a positive attitude    In my late teens I played rugby for a team called Cambuslang Athletic. But I should admit my rugby was played in their third team, made up mostly of people too unfit or unskilled for the better teams. Few of us came from Cambuslang (near Glasgow, Scotland), and absolutely none of us were athletic. We’d trot onto the rugby pitch, take one look at our opponents who were always giants capable of running right over us, and we knew we’d lose. The whistle would sound, the opposition would get the ball, and two minutes later they’d have a touch down and conversion. On a good day their second score wouldn’t happen for at least five minutes. And so the match would continue. We might be 30 points down before half-time, and wondering why we’d bothered to turn up. In the second half no-one on our side was running too much, or tackling too hard. Why exhaust yourself, and why risk injury when you know you won’t win? Every match was like that. Except one. On that day the near miracle happened and we got to half-time and the scores were tied. We weren’t winning but we weren’t losing. During the short break, we stood in a circle, sucking pieces of orange, and we all felt something previously unknown rise within us: hope. We could win this match. And driven by hope, we went into the second half with energy, optimism, determination, and we ran and tackled and pushed and jumped and kicked like we’d never done before. And that day – that one day – we won.

Hope carries us forward. Hope fuels positivity and banishes negativity. Hope is the parent of belief.

Hope keeps us looking forward    I walked to school every day, and often my mum would stand by our front gate watching as I walked off down the street toward school. She’d wave, and I’d wave back. And she’d wave again, and I’d wave back. I learned to walk backwards so I could wave more easily. Walking backwards was a bad idea. The back of my head met a very solid concrete lamppost. As my head cannoned off the lamppost, stars floated in front of my eyes, and I staggered around. After a few minutes I recovered and learned a lesson: look forward in life.  

Hope guarantees we do that. By its very nature, hope is forward-looking. It sees what doesn’t yet exist, what’s possible but not yet actual, what’s not in our grasp but could be, and pushes us forward toward goals we’d never reach otherwise.

Too many think their best days are past days. With rose-tinted glasses, they sentimentalise and idealise a previous place, or job, or feeling, or experience, or relationship, and cannot imagine anything ever being so good again. And – if they keep looking back – they’ll be right, because looking back fixes you in the past. Hope, however, turns us round, faces us to an even better future, and delivers a kick where it’s needed most to get us going.

Hope builds endurance    During my darkest days of depression I could see no good future. That’s a bad and dangerous place to be, especially when you believe everyone would be better off without you. Meaning well, some told me, ‘Don’t worry, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel’. But there wasn’t. Somehow I was inside a circular tunnel, going round and round with no escape, no end, and therefore no light. The people closest to me – my wife Alison and one or two others – were more careful about what they said. Mostly it was just one message: ‘this depression will not be for ever; it will come to an end; you will be able to move beyond it’. I might have written off those words too. I had no concept of how my depression would end. But I trusted these people. They loved me and would tell me the truth, so I couldn’t dismiss their message. Their words – that this depression would end – injected a glimmer of hope into my mind. Hope may just have flickered, but even the smallest hope has strength and it pulled me forward, week after week, and month after month. Life was still very hard, but I wasn’t stuck in my darkness. Hope dragged me through each tough day and night. Then, after two and a half years and with no warning, one day I stepped out of my circular tunnel and there was light and goodness and love and a life worth living for.

I was given the gift of hope. It was fragile but resilient. And it changed my life.

Hope needs wisdom as its companion    There are at least two reasons why hope must be guided by wisdom.

Hope can be directed to unwise or wrong ambitions. I imagine someone saying, ‘I hope to be Prime Minister (or President) soon’. If that ‘someone’ is a UK Member of Parliament (or a US Senator), that hope could be reasonable. But if those words are spoken by a janitor in the House of Commons (or US Congress building), their hope is fairly unrealistic, at least if the word ‘soon’ is in the sentence.

Hope needs wisdom to point it in sensible and good directions. Someone might hope to become a multi-millionaire by buying ten lottery tickets next week. Or, another person might watch a ‘How to paint’ YouTube video and hope to be recognised as a world famous artist by the end of the year. These ‘hopes’ are misdirected; they’re neither sensible nor good. We must be wise as well as hopeful.

We need to be careful when hoping for the most important things in our lives. I supported Mary while her little girl Sandra lay in intensive care because of a major brain injury. As Sandra’s life ebbed away Mary prayed and hoped against hope for a miracle. Not for one minute would she give up believing that Sandra would get well. But Sandra died, and Mary was devastated, wholly unprepared for her daughter’s death, experiencing grief that made her irrational and a danger to herself. Kate developed cancer. She and her husband Henry were in their thirties with three children. Though Kate’s cancer had spread through her body, it seemed wrong that someone young, beautiful and so loved and needed could die. They prayed constantly for healing. People told them God had promised Kate would get well, but they must believe for the healing and never doubt it. Special services were held, all-night prayer sessions took place. Kate got weaker but she and Henry still hoped, still believed for the miracle. I sat beside Henry as Kate’s brave battle ended. Later, Henry told me that it was only three weeks before Kate died that they’d talked about what death meant for her, how he would manage with the children, and she’d given him ‘permission’ to marry again. His one regret? That they hadn’t talked through these things months before. They hadn’t because they’d clung so strongly to their hope of healing that they didn’t dare admit it might not happen.

It seems strange to write these paragraphs, as if I’m undoing the positives about hope. I hope I haven’t done that. But I’ve included these stories because hope must be wisely managed. It’s exactly the same with love, ambition, care, loyalty (and more) – all good things, yet all needing wise stewardship.

How do we find hope?    Here I have to declare that I don’t know for sure where hope comes from. But I suspect hope is a gift of God, somehow wired into us.

I need to immediately add that hope can easily and quickly be suppressed. I’ve told the story before[2] of an evening walk with an Indian friend through the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata). I saw the flimsy shelters of families who lived on the sidewalks, and watched as parents wrapped their little children in sack-like material to insulate them from the cold before laying them down to sleep. I was shocked, and asked my friend how long before these families would have a home of their own. My friend was gracious, and gently explained that in the sense I meant it these families would never have a home. He said: ‘The parents – like their parents – were born here on the sidewalk, grew up here, as will their children. They will never have any other home.’ That night there was a thunderstorm, and those families had no way to escape being drenched.

Why describe this? Well, the little children in those families might have hopes – a decent meal, one day a job – but early on in life they’d be told any really big hopes were pointless. Their circumstances – as with all those living with cruelty, hunger, imprisonment – repress the gift of hope in their lives. I wish it was not so, and I don’t believe the world must be that way, but for many that’s exactly how it is.

Hope can also be squashed in those with advantaged lives. A constant attitude of negativity does that. I’ve met people who, instead of believing every cloud must have a silver lining, believe every silver lining must have a cloud. A mind like that is an infertile field for hope. It cannot thrive there.

Others damage hope by arrogant over-confidence, perhaps borrowing thousands to start a business yet failing because they never researched whether that business was needed. I’ve seen that pattern repeat over and over and, eventually, these rash entrepreneurs become discouraged and lose hope. But hope goes only because they create their own failures.

And, for some, being hopeful is too risky. They can’t form a deep relationship in case it falls apart. They can’t accept promotion in case they fail with higher responsibilities. They can’t enter a competition in case they lose. Such fearful people damage their ability to hope.

But, with all those cautions, I still believe hope is a gift planted in all of us. When encouraged it grows and leads to a gloriously positive attitude to life. And hope can be passed on, just as Alison and very close friends did for me during my darkest days. Hope is infectious.

And hope lasts    One of the marvellous chapters in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 13, sometimes described as a passage in praise of love. As well as describing wonderful things about love, it mentions things that will one day pass away, including knowledge. But, three things will always remain ‘faith, hope and love’ (v.13). The Bible has plenty to say about faith and love, but hope is right up there between those two. Hope is important. Hope lasts. Hope is a forever thing.

Be hopeful today.


Note: how Brian Keenan’s captivity ended

After four a half years of captivity, on August 24, 1990, Keenan was bundled into a car, driven to Damascus, and passed to Syrian and then Irish authorities. He was free. He was met by his two sisters, and together they flew the next day to Northern Ireland. He was severely malnourished and physically weak, having lost 4 stone (56 pounds, 25.4 kg) during his imprisonment. For a long time after his return Keenan sought solitude, but in 1993 he married his wife, Audrey, and they have two sons.

John McCarthy remained a prisoner until 8 August 1991. The two men remain friends, though apparently rarely talk about their captivity.

In a 2016 interview, Keenan said: “I’ve come to an understanding. I have been given much in life. I look at what I have been given and it’s greater than what’s been taken from me.”  (Irish Post, April 12, 2016)

[1] Quoted from: Keenan, Brian (1993). An Evil Cradling. London: Vintage. p. 109. The book is a detailed account of Keenan’s captivity in Beirut. Inevitably it’s a gritty read, but brilliantly written and deeply moving.

[2] In the blog ‘Not the world as it was meant to be’ of August 29, 2021. See https://occasionallywise.com/2021/08/29/not-the-world-as-it-was-meant-to-be/