Today, thoughts on hope, expectation, and an
overheard conversation. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
"What do you think of when I
say Christmas?" was the question. "I think of soft
lights and pretty music, but I don't have all that
many happy memories of Christmas," came the answer.
"But you like Christmas. You still like to
celebrate it." "Oh yes, I do." "Well, why?" "Maybe
it's because Christmas always brings me hope."
Suddenly I saw a kernel of logic forming behind the
seeming illogic of Christmas. Christmas had started
reminding me of Charlie Brown trusting Lucy not to
pull the football away just before he kicks it.
Every fall, Charlie comes back. Every fall, Lucy
pulls the football away at the last second and
Charlie spins off balance to land on his head. And
every fall, Charlie still comes back. We likewise
come back every Christmas looking for something
that so often seems not to be there.
We may think Charlie Brown's hope and his
expectation are the same thing, but they're not.
Those two things often oppose each another. Think
about inventors: inventors rearrange the contents,
not only of the known universe, but of that other
universe inside the mind as well. Within that
torturous process, good inventors expect failure
after failure. They expect Lucy to snatch the ball
away. But creative people also entertain ongoing
hope. A hundred failures for one rousing success
isn't so bad. The composer Leoncavallo wrote a lot
of music. Who knows a line of it beyond I
Pagliacci? Who needs to know more!
Invention doesn't mean going to the lab, or the
computer, confident of success. Quite the contrary!
It means going to work with confidence that rides
through all those failures. It means holding the
hope of success. When James Watt went into a long
period of failure, his wife wrote to him, "If it
will not do, something else will. Never despair."
Poet Witter Bynner recalls what Ben Franklin said
when he was asked what good an invention was.
Bynner draws the Christ Child into Franklin's
What's the use of a new-born child?...
to raise the dead heart? -- to set wild the
In this series we've met scores of inventors who
worked on inventions that didn't pan out. Driven by
their wild hopes, they often found their
contentment as they did no more than lay ground for
others. Success, by itself, is seldom that kind to
This Christmas Eve of 1996, like all Christmases,
will tease us with expectations that cannot be met.
Some of us expect from the start to be
disappointed. But others, like the person I
overheard in that conversation, find a renewal of
hope in the season.
They're the ones who see realistically. Christmas
never was about expecting happiness. It always has
been about tapping into an enduring hope -- a hope
that can sustain us long after trees are burned,
wrappings hauled away, and imperfect gifts
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds