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Is It Still Possible to Hope?

Three reasons you don't have to give up hope, even with the state of our world.

Tim Umphreys/Unsplash
Source: Tim Umphreys/Unsplash

Hope is a word people often use when things are going well. If someone had a great interview, they might say, “I’m hopeful about that job.” Or, if the 7-day forecast is for warm weather, we might tell a friend, “Let’s plan a walk on Thursday; I’m hopeful it will be sunny.” It’s easy to have hope under these circumstances. But what about when things seem much bleaker?

There’s no doubt that the past few months have been among the most traumatic in recent memory. On March 11, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Since that time, the virus has infected more than 8 million people worldwide—over 2 million in the United States alone. Even as of last week, 21 states had seen increases in new daily cases. Then, on May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was brutally killed in Minneapolis by a White police officer, while two other officers restrained him and a last officer stood by, once again exposing the raw racism in our country. In the intervening weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have entered the streets to express their sorrow and outrage for Floyd, as well as for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. Just a few days ago, Rayshard Brooks was added to this awful list when he was shot by police outside a Wendy’s in Atlanta.

Few people would use the word “hopeful” to describe the state of our world. On the contrary, words like "tragic," "heart-breaking," and "painful" come to mind. People are afraid, sad, angry, and grief-stricken. And yet, in the midst of the tumult, amazing things are happening. In a June 1 article, Buzzfeed recorded some of these moments in a series of striking photographs. In cities around the world, people have brought flowers to lay at beautiful, grass-roots memorials to George Floyd. Volunteers distribute free food, water, and other essentials to demonstrators. People are handing out free masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And all of this is happening against a backdrop of continued rapid mobilization of scientific work on COVID-19. Promising treatment approaches for the illness are being explored, including numerous drugs.

None of this takes away the suffering, of course. None of this magically relieves the grief that so many have experienced as a result of the coronavirus. None of this magically restores the millions of jobs lost to the pandemic. And none of this will bring back George Floyd or the countless souls who have been the victims of racist violence for centuries. There’s a lot of pain. But hope can exist even in the midst of pain.

In a 2016 article in The Guardian, essayist and activist Rebecca Solnit wrote, “Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.” In other words, hope is something you don’t have to give up, even in the worst of times. Here are three reasons why:

1. Hope isn’t a delusion.

Hope isn’t the same as wishful thinking. It’s not even the same as glass-half-full thinking. Hope is applicable even when the glass is only a third full or has nothing in it at all. That’s because real hope isn’t about living in a fantasy world; it’s about living in this one. It doesn’t deny suffering and pain.

In our 2014 book, Supersurvivors, my co-author and I profiled 17 survivors of horrible traumas and tragedies who somehow went on to do things that made the world a better place. A through-line in their stories was something we called “grounded hope.” Even though all of them exemplified a hopeful, forward-looking spirit, they also were firmly grounded in the realities of their situations. For instance, when James Cameron, the only survivor of a 1930 lynch mob, established the first NAACP chapter in Anderson, Indiana, worked to desegregate housing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and ultimately founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum, he wasn’t under any illusion that the world was a wonderful place. Quite the opposite: His hope was fueled by a belief that, despite the staggering resistance he knew he would face, his faith and hard work could nonetheless help build a better life for Black Americans. As he wrote in his autobiography, A Time of Terror, “With faith and prayer over my lips forever, I was determined to keep my hands on the throttle and my eyes upon the rails.” Both the people marching for Black Lives Matter as well as the scientists and physicians working to end the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t doing it because it’s easy. They’re doing it because they believe strongly that it’s worth it. If you’re feeling hopeless, ask yourself what goals in your own life are worth “keeping your hands on the throttle” for.

2. Hope is a perception that creates reality.

At its heart, hope is a perception. Unlike most perceptions, however, it has the possibility of creating reality. Most of the time, we think of reality as creating our perceptions: Look around you right now and notice the objects in your environment. Those objects exist in reality before we perceive them. But hope is a special kind of perception: It’s a perception of something that does not yet exist. It’s a perception of what is possible. And research shows that when people have hope, their goals are actually more likely to become reality. This isn’t because hope has magical powers. It’s because when people have a clear belief about what is possible, they’re more likely to take steps to make it happen. As Barack Obama communicated in the title his book, The Audacity of Hope, hope is often audacious. It involves taking a cold, hard look at reality, but nonetheless being daring and bold enough to believe that a better future is possible. Some might call it foolhardy (another synonym for audacious), but many goals some people believed were once impossible turned out to be possible. In the last century or so, human beings learned to fly, landed on the moon, networked the globe, and eradicated or dramatically reduced diseases like polio and smallpox. If you’re feeling hopeless, examine your perceptions: Are you telling yourself that goals you value aren’t possible? What would happen if you took a more “audacious” approach?

3. Hope IS a strategy.

You may have heard the phrase, “Hope is not a strategy.” Invoked by both the political left and right throughout the 2000s, this saying has actually been around since at least the mid-1900s. In one sense, the saying is correct: The mere feeling of hope isn’t a strategy. Although this feeling may buoy us up when we’re feeling down, it’s not going to directly solve our problems. But this is only one perspective on hope.

Actor and activist Jane Fonda famously provided a different perspective, when she said “Hope is activism.” In this view, hope is more than a feeling; it’s a way of thinking that pushes us to take action. That assertion is supported by research by psychologist C. R. Snyder, who found that hope is at the heart of our goal pursuits. Through interviewing large numbers of hopeful people, he discovered that most had three things in common: goals, pathways, and agency. First, they had a clear sense of what their goals were and felt committed to them. Second, they had pathways—also known as strategies—that they believed could move them toward their goals. They were under no illusions that all (or even most) of these pathways would work. Instead, they tended to try multiple pathways, realizing that many would inevitably be blocked. Finally, they had an abiding belief in themselves and their capabilities, something Snyder called agency. Although they recognized that working toward their goals would be difficult, they still believed that they—deep down—might be capable of doing it if they kept trying. In other words, according to this perspective, hope is a kind of planning. It involves a vision of what is important to us and how we might accomplish it, along with the belief in ourselves necessary to act.

To be clear, this “active” kind of hope won’t magically end racism, eradicate COVID-19, or instantaneously bring about any other goals, but it is the psychological engine that drives our efforts. As psychologist Meg Van Deusen, author of Stressed in the U.S., wrote of hope, “When we have it we move and when we move we change things.” If you’re feeling hopeless, ask yourself what pathways you can enact right now—even small ones—to help move toward goals you value. I know one person who, when she was feeling hopeless last month, volunteered to make COVID-19 masks for a community organization. It was a small effort, but it changed her view of the situation and contributed to making the world a better place. Clocking volunteer hours, marching in a protest, making a donation, writing a letter, calling a friend, or making a social media post, among many other actions, are all pathways to consider. Not everyone will be comfortable with or able to do all of them, but doing nothing when we’re feeling hopeless can often amplify that sense of hopelessness.

Our world looks pretty bleak: Millions of cases of coronavirus, more tragic and unjust killings of unarmed Black men and women. It would be tempting to lose hope. But that makes it even more important to hold tightly to a vision of a better future. In your corner of the world, what steps can you take to make the world a bit better? It’s a question we all should be asking ourselves right now.

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