The Hope at the Bottom of Pandora’s Box

February 1, 2022

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It happens each night. 

“Can we read just one more, please?” Vivian looks at me with those big blue eyes. 

“Just one,” I answer with a smile. 

I always cave in. 

Recently, before my younger daughter drifts off to sleep at day’s end, we have found ourselves reading aloud Greek and Roman mythology. I’m not sure how we got into it, but returning to stories of mythic gods and monsters has been surprisingly captivating. Cracking open Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and flipping pages for the most intriguing tale, we have witnessed Perseus beheading Medusa, Theseus outwitting the Minotaur, the trials of Cupid and Psyche, and the unending shenanigans of Zeus. Not only have these stories opened up vistas inhabited by strange gods, odd creatures, and courageous heroes, but they also have offered creative insight into the promise and dysfunction of man. 

Last night, we stumbled upon the story of Pandora and her cask (interestingly, not a box). Pandora, as many may know, was Zeus’ answer to the rebellious Prometheus. But Pandora was no ordinary woman; she was Zeus’ dark trick on humanity. As Hesiod records in Works and Days, 

[Zeus] told Hephaistos quickly to mix earth

And water, and to put in it a voice

And human power to move, to make a face

Like an immortal goddess, and to shape

The lovely figure of a virgin girl…

Zeus ordered, then,

The killer of Argos, Hermes, to put in

Sly manners, and the morals of a bitch …

Hermes the Messenger put in her breast

Lies and persuasive words and cunning ways;

The herald of the gods then named the girl

Pandora, for the gifts which all the gods

Had given her, this ruin of mankind. 

Because Prometheus deigned to empower the lowly mortals with the gods’ fire, Zeus deviously offered the beautiful, god-crafted Pandora as wife to Prometheus’ dim brother, Epimetheus. Shortly after the unwitting Epimetheus married Pandora, she opened a god-given cask and released untold evil (“thousands of troubles, wandering the earth”) into the world. But before the cask was completely empty, she slammed the lid down and trapped one last thing: hope. 

A converse narrative is offered by Aesop in a fable called Zeus and the Jar of Good Things. This story finds a foolish man opening an overfilled jar which releases the best virtues that then wildly flee earth and return to the gods. While the loss of such virtues, Aesop suggests, has left us incorrigibly mired in the blackest sin, the man, like Pandora, saves hope just as he slams the jar’s lid shut. 

I don’t know how many times I have heard the story of Pandora’s box. And I have never, before today, encountered Aesop’s version. But I have never heard the part about saving hope. Too often the myth’s focus is on the evil that is let loose, and not the hope that remains. But what an omission! The endurance of hope embodies just what we have left when all else has gone wrong. And it is simply brilliant. 

To be sure, in our daily encounters with sin and vice, we often find it difficult to love, sacrifice, be honest, and do the right thing. Bereft of virtuous strength, temptation beckons and we tumble headlong into the abyss of sin. Again and again, the cycle repeats itself to the point of seeming pathetic. But in spite of our trials living a more virtuous life, we have surprisingly little trouble with maintaining a degree of hope. Our faith may be shaken. Our love may be gone. But hope seems always to stick with us. 

And it doesn’t even seem rational. 

In his An Essay on Man: Epistle I, Alexander Pope writes, 

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never is, but always to be blest:

The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

G.K. Chesterton once observed, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”

And Charles Péguy, in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, observes the world through God’s eyes insisting that it is not faith or charity that surprises him, but marvelous, inexplicable hope. 

What surprises me, says God, is hope.

And I can’t get over it.

This little hope who seems like nothing at all.

This little girl hope.

Immortal. 

This triumph of hope in even the darkest hour shouldn’t surprise us—it should embolden us. We are hopeful because we are Christ-loved and God-forged into existence. We are hopeful because, in spite of our awful world-blindness, we know in the depths of our marrow that victory is ours. We are hopeful because, at our core, we know that love endures and heaven awaits, so why wouldn’t we put out into the deep? This doesn’t mean that life isn’t hard—it just means that life is not hopeless. Regardless of the “thousands of troubles, wandering the earth,” whether it is a lost job, an endured abuse, a worry over a wayward child, or a lapse into addiction—whatever cross we are bearing—we need only slide back the lid and peer into the bottom of the jar. There is always hope. 

Last night, when my daughter asked if we could read another tale, I paused for a moment. 

“Wait a sec, baby. Let’s read this one again.”

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