Author Kate Davies
Are you hopeful about the future?
How do you feel about the state of the world?
Several years ago, I posed these questions to my family, friends and colleagues. The responses I received were alarming: Not one person said they felt hopeful and many spoke about their fear, sadness, despair, anger, guilt and/or grief. Having worked on environmental and social issues professionally for almost 40 years, I am very familiar with these emotions, but I was shocked by how common they were among the people I know. Perhaps you are acquainted with them too?
This completely unscientific survey was part of a personal inquiry into hope that I started back in 2011. One day, when I was feeling especially disheartened about the Fukushima disaster in Japan, I found myself asking myself questions such as “How can I be hopeful when the world seems to be falling apart?”, “How can I nurture hope?” and “What does hope look even mean in these times?” And because I had no satisfactory answers, I decided to launch an investigation into the subject.
The first step was to look in the dictionary. Most common definitions use words like desire, expectation and anticipation. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary says that hope is “expectation and desire combined” and Merriam-Webster’s says it is “to cherish a desire with anticipation”. After reflecting on these definitions, I realized they are based on the assumption that life should give us whatever we desire. In other words, whenever we hope for something, there’s a belief - even if it is very subtle - that events will conform with our wishes.
But life doesn’t always give us what we want. Many people, including me, hope to see a just, peaceful and sustainable society. But as our problems continue to worsen, life seems to be giving us the opposite - what we don’t want. No matter how sincere and well-intentioned our hopes and no matter how hard we work to achieve them, there are no guarantees we will get what we want. Therefore, there is a dissonance between our hopes for the future and what is actually happening. This makes it inevitable that we will experience fear, sadness, despair, anger, guilt and grief. Indeed, the yawning gap between what we hope for and the reality of life is a set-up for these painful feelings. Even though our hopes may be noble and altruistic, the more desperately we want to attain them, the more emotional suffering we will experience when life doesn’t conform with our wishes.
By this stage of my inquiry, I felt even worse than when I started. But thankfully, I found another definition. In addition to defining hope in terms of desire, expectation and anticipation, most dictionaries provide secondary, archaic definitions of it as “trust”. This older and much less common meaning is based on having confidence in life, without the expectation or anticipation that we will get what we want anytime soon. To me, this type of hope feels much more robust and capacious to me because it doesn’t depend on attaining specific improvements in life.
This type of hope has an unshakeable faith in whatever happens and in the human capacity to respond to it constructively. It is a positive, although not necessarily optimistic attitude to life. Unlike the first type of hope, this second type comes from inside – from our hearts. It is about loving life so much that we cannot sit idly by and do nothing. I called this type of hope “intrinsic hope” and I called the first type “extrinsic hope”.
Over time, I came to see that intrinsic hope is inherent in all life. As Cicero said “where there is life there is hope”. Intrinsic hope is sewn into our genes - just as it sewn into the genes of every living thing. It’s the way a dandelion sprouts between the cracks in a city sidewalk, even if there’s no soil, lots of pollution and a constant onslaught of passing pedestrians and dogs. It’s the way a single maple tree releases hundreds of thousands of seeds, oblivious of whether any take root and grow. And it’s the way Pacific salmon, heavy with eggs, strain to swim up their natal rivers and streams to spawn even though they will die in the effort. One could say that intrinsic hope is life’s love for itself.
Although we are all born with intrinsic hope, it’s easy to forget. Because we usually focus on problems and difficulties, we can fail to appreciate the miracle of life and become blind to its potentials and possibilities. By concentrating on the negative, we don’t see the positive. By emphasizing what we lack and what we want, we ignore what we already have and don’t consider what could be.
I’m not suggesting that we become like Pollyanna and adopt a naïvely optimistic outlook on life; intrinsic hope is not about wishful thinking. However, it offers a different and helpful perspective on what’s happening. Moreover, we can choose to embrace intrinsic hope at any time, no matter how bad things seem.
So can we choose intrinsic hope in these troubled times? Can we choose to come from love rather than fear? Can we choose to come from compassion rather than anger? Can we stay open and engaged rather than closing down or distancing ourselves from those we disagree with? Can we let go of wanting to achieve particular goals and immerse ourselves in doing what is good and right, simply for its own sake?
Choosing intrinsic hope is essential in these troubled time. If we lose all hope and give up, then all the gloomy predictions about the future will likely become a reality. And if we dwell on our extrinsic hopes, we will continue to feel fear, sadness, despair, anger, guilt and grief whenever life does not give us what we want. But if we can live from intrinsic hope, we will be able to cope with whatever happens - staying positive and engaged even in the darkest of times. And in doing so, we can influence whether there will be a viable future for our children, their children and all future generations of life on earth.
For more from Kate Davies see: katedavies.org