The Psychology of Hope
Psychological views of hope also seesaw. One negative consequence is paralysis. People who lose unrecovered loved ones in natural disasters, or whose abducted children are never found, cling to the hope of a miraculous return. Mired in the past, they can’t move forward. A less extreme, but still harmful view, claims all hope is false and collective hope, which makes people band together, is a collusion of shuttered eyes and stuffed ears. Rotate 180 degrees and you find mental health professionals who insist hope is a protective factor that helps us tackle intrusive thoughts, reduces stress and feelings of helplessness, and increases happiness. It benefits the body as well as the mind. Hope boosts the immune system and promotes cardiovascular health.
Put another way, hope enhances our quality of life. Talent and skill alone won’t get us where we want to go, but hope adds the determination to reach our goals and the inspiration to generate the strategies to do so. Studies show that hope is not just a feel-good emotion, but a motivational system. Those who lack hope undertake easy tasks and quit when they fail. People with hope seek challenges and actively learn how to improve their chances of success.
The Politics of Hope
Anti-hopers decry the air of nobility society attaches to hope. While admitting that hope gives us a reason to get up every day, it also accentuates misery. Their message: “Stop bellyaching. Be grateful for what you have.” That’s fine for the fortunate, but pro-hopers believe in making life better for those with less. For example, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof left The New York Times after thirty-seven years to run for governor of Oregon, where his hometown is now devastated by the opioid crisis. He said, “While I’ve spent my career on the front lines of suffering and depravity, I emerged believing that we can make real progress by summoning the political will. Side by side with the worst of humanity, you find the best.” Somewhere in the middle are those who recognize the necessity of hope, but caution it carries dangerous elements when we appeal to a higher power, including demagogues, to make our desires come true.
In the end, I wonder if the two sides are not that far apart. Makers of dystopian works may in fact betray a deeper conviction in hope. After all, why create a story, a drama, or a song, if not in the hope it will spread and outlive its creator? Perhaps even the most negative among us hopes that their actions leave an imprint and make a positive difference, no matter how small, in the world.
“It is not incumbent on you to finish the task,
but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”
— Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, writings of Jewish sages 200 BCE to 200 CE)
Hope is the willingness to engage in the task, however much progress you make. For reasons personal and pragmatic, political and theological, I come down on side of hope. I’ll take the journey, step-by-step. Will you stand still, or join with those who walk and pass on the baton?