I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope. ― Nelson Mandela

In December 2013, Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95.  Tributes rang out all over the world.  Mandela was an inspiration to millions, if not billions, of people.  He gave voice to the oppressed; he demonstrated unsurpassed resilience and resolve as an advocate of freedom and democracy; and, most notably, he brokered a new peace and a new constitution for South Africa in the face of intense and sustained opposition.  Although some people described Nelson Mandela as a saint, Barack Obama reminded us of his humility in the face of such acclaim.  In his tribute, Obama quoted Mandela directly:  “I am not a saint,” Mandela said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”  In reflecting on his life’s work, Mandela often noted how hope had helped him to keep on trying, and Obama described some of the characteristics of Mandela’s hopeful actions:

Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with.…Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough.  No matter how right, they must be chiselled into law and institutions.  He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history.

Being a practical man, trustful of reason, Mandela managed to lead the people of his nation into a new and more hopeful phase of its history.  He also managed to influence many other world leaders. Since 2013, circumstances have changed. History has moved on. Barack Obama has been replaced by Donald Trump as leader of the U.S., and global attitude surveys highlight that many people struggle to experience a sense of hope. Mandela’s perspective on the world may appear to have drifted into the annals of history, and his words of wisdom are easily lost in the deluge of current political affairs.  

I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.  This is one of the many quotes from Nelson Mandela that may appear in our social media feed, as part of the flood of information that emerges at an accelerating rate in our busy, modern world.  And yet, we have no clear knowledge of where the modern world is taking us, or what the future will bring.  It can be difficult to establish a perspective in the face of such information overload and uncertainty.

Yet, our perspective is important.  For example, whether you’re an optimist, a pessimist, or a believer in hope, you will find yourself oriented in a particular direction – toward the future.  Although books on mindfulness tell us that we spend far too much time oriented to the future – we really should spend more time ‘in the present’ – we often ignore this advice, because there are things we need to do. There are jobs to be done: we need to get up for work in the morning, pass those exams next week, book that holiday for next year, plan out those big career moves, and so on. Thus, it’s not surprising that we often find ourselves oriented to the future, and often grappling to establish some perspective in relation to our future plans and goals in life.  And depending on our current dispositions – e.g., feelings of optimism, pessimism, or hope – we may discover ourselves adopting a particular perspective, or a particular belief, in relation to our future: We may believe that our future will be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Our perspective and belief can be more or less fixed, rigid. Fixed beliefs may lead us to ignore aspects of reality, and act in a ways that confirm our beliefs.  

But our perspective can change. We can change our view, and through a process of reasoning and reflection we can transform our beliefs. We can perceive reality as more complex and dynamic, and, in the face of all odds, we can experience a sense of hope in relation to the future.  Hope, as the opening quote from Nelson Mandela suggests, appears to prompt an active stance. Hope seems different from ‘blind’ optimism.  Hope appears to allow for a complex view of reality to form. Hope need not disturb the flow of our critical, reflective thinking as we seek to understand, adapt to, and transform our reality.  With a sense of hope, we are oriented to the future, and we can actively work in the present to achieve a future we have envisioned.  We can actively think and plan and simulate future scenarios, and by some standard, some of our thinking may be deemed wise [i]. It seems to me that hope is something unique, something that only Homo sapiens could have conceived of.

[i] Snyder, C. (2002). Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.

© Michael Hogan

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