Is there hope for hope? Part I
By Alan Sieler
Our shared existential challenge
A brief look at newspaper headlines or the leading stories in TV news broadcasts often does not make for good reading or viewing - a continuing global pandemic, the worsening climate crisis and extreme weather events, geo-political uncertainty, war in Ukraine, environmental destruction on a large scale, the possibility of a global economic recession, untrustworthy politicians, as well as the growing incidence of social media abuse and internet scams. Many have made the decision to longer engage with public media about what is reported and the “state of play” in the world.
It can be difficult to feel optimistic about the future of humanity and the biosphere on which we rely for our continued existence. Consequently, it can be easy to fall into a pervasive “doom and gloom” mood that can be a combination of anxiety, resignation, even despair, anger and frustration. Given all of this, it is not surprising that increasing attention is given to what is labelled as “mental health” and “mental illness”.
Without wanting to negate the very difficult inner struggles some people can have that require psychological support, from an ontological perspective, perhaps most of us are not predominantly confronted with “mental” issues but rather, existential difficulties. In the face of current circumstances, we have we have a continual existential challenge, individually and collectively, to live well - not only materially and financially, but also mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
At the heart of our existence is our Way of Being, which is a constant dynamic interplay between how we engage with language, what is happening with us emotionally and how we function in our physiology. The way we experience current circumstances in the world and the orientation we have to the future can only occur from our Way of Being, a central feature of which is our moods and emotions.
The role of moods and emotions in how we face our existential challenge
How we are being emotionally plays a powerful role in the way we behave and respond to encounters in everyday life and how we face the future. While we are influenced by what occurs in the world, fundamentally we experience the world from the existential space that constitutes our Way of Being, a central part of which is what is happening in our moods. The moods we live from can be deep and enduring emotional spaces that continually shape not only how we perceive what is happening, but also the effectiveness of how we respond and actions we do and do not take in dealing with all manner of life circumstances.
Therefore, one crucial aspect of our fundamental existential challenge to live well and contribute to the world becoming a better place is the moods that take up residence within us as well as the moods that prevail socially. Unfortunately, the world does not look at us with care and sensitivity and ask, “How can I support you to live from more helpful moods?” Well-meaning family and friends may express concern and want to help, but essentially each of us individually has the responsibility to find the deep emotional space that will maximise the possibility of living well.
Hope as a mood space
One possible significant contributor to living from a constructive mood space is hope. Perhaps hope has never been more urgently needed. But how do we stay hopeful when so many things can seem hopeless? How do we cultivate hope in our children?
To have hope is to envisage a better future. In the midst of difficult times, hope can provide a sense of meaning in life. It can help make a tough present situation more bearable and can eventually improve our lives because envisioning a better future can motivate us to take steps to make it happen. Interestingly, some researchers contend that hope is a better predictor of success than intelligence or innate ability alone.
Over the years, hope has experienced some “bad press” with some harsh comments that are dismissive of hope being helpful for equipping us emotionally to live well. Two examples are:
· “Hope is not a method” when referring to contraception.
· “Hope is the raw material of losers”.
An important distinction can be made between passive hope and active hope. The above sentences are criticisms of passive hope. Other examples of this form of hope are: “I hope the meeting isn’t too hostile” and “I hope scientists find a way to reduce global carbon emissions and stop global warming”. Such uses of hope place the speaker as having little or no agency in the world, reliant on the behaviour of others.
A perspective on hope
What we can refer to as active hope has been beautifully articulated by David Newheiser in his book Hope in a Secular Age.
A key part of Newheiser’s perspective is that hope consists of a discipline of will and resilience to persist in the face of uncertainty and the possibility that things will not eventuate as we desire. He cites a somewhat dramatic example to highlight what he means by discipline: “It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent. Hope is a discipline of this kind.”
Three other aspects of Newheiser’s thoroughly considered perspective of the nature of hope are worth sharing.
· “Hope does not assume it will bring the future into being, but it refuses to give up the struggle simply because the situation is bleak. It is the precondition for action in the face of overwhelming odds and, as a discipline, endures the pain of incompletion”.
· “Hope is decision added to desire and as such is unconstrained by calculation. A hope untethered from the rational evaluation of probabilities is perilous, for there is no guarantee that it will be fulfilled. Nevertheless, it remains an indispensable dimension of human life.”
· In stating that hope is not the same as optimism, Newheiser writes: “Hope connotes possibility and light. It is directed towards that which one desires. Hope enables people to stave off the darkness, holding on to the promise of better things. At the same time, hope has darkness at its heart. Because it concerns what may be rather than what is, hope is fundamentally uncertain. In contrast to optimism, hope possesses no confidence concerning its fulfilment.”
To close the first part of this article, here is an invitation to reflect on the place of active hope in your life.
· What role do passive hope and active hope play in your life?
· What speaks most to you to you from each of Newheiser’s quotes?
· What happened with you emotionally with each quote – what specific emotional responses did you notice?
· What responses in your physiology did you notice?
· In which areas of your life will you benefit from, in Newheiser’s words, a discipline of will and resilience to persist in the face of uncertainty?
Stay tuned for Part II in next month’s newsletter.
Alan Sieler is the Director of the Ontological Coaching Institute. He has designed and leads the ICF accredited Ontological Coaching and Leadership Program and is the author of the four volumes of Coaching to the Human Soul: Ontological Coaching and Deep Change. He can be contacted at email@example.com.