March 19, 2021

Musings on Hope

By Vega Subramaniam

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” — (Probably not) Shakespeare

We’re hearing a lot about “hope” these days. Hope for vaccinations and herd immunity. Hope for a relatively speedy economic recovery. Hope for a return to normalcy this year. And yet, “hope” is brittle and bruised. It is for me, anyway. The heartbreaking anti-Asian violence around the country and most recently in Georgia has driven me around the bend. I will refrain from piling onto the “me too” stories because of course me too. But I digress.

The moment you think that you can take a breath, the next truly terrible thing happens. And in the name of all that is holy, why does it always have to be truly terrible, like off-the-charts terrible? Why can’t we go back to the good old days of only sort of terrible? (I kid, I kid.)

After a year of shattered expectations, it feels foreign to bank on, well, anything when it comes to the multiple fronts of pandemic, justice, and climate (a non-exhaustive list, to be clear).

We humans sure have a tortured relationship to “hope,” considering that it’s omnipresent and unavoidable. Hope, we think, is a delusion, a tone-deaf luxury, a psychic landmine. It’s elusive and easily dashed. It’s not worth having; certainly not worth chasing. It is also, I mean, as I said, unavoidable, and also, like, a precious and powerful state of mind that keeps us living to fight another day.

The more I use the word, the more I’m like, wait, what actually is “hope”? We might be better able to grapple with “hope” once we define it and its components. Charles R. Snyder, hope researcher, defines hope as: “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).” Meaning (I think), hope involves having a meaningful goal, creating pathways toward meeting that goal, and thinking you can use those pathways to reach that goal.

As against wishing, and as against optimism. Wishing is untethered, without agency. Wishing is the emotionally painful state of mind. “I wish I’d gotten that job! I wish it wasn’t raining today! I wish my body wasn’t so sore!” (Insert joke here about wishing away white male supremacy.) Optimism is a personality trait of generalized positivity. “It’ll be fine.” “We’ll figure it out.” “It’s OK, better luck next time.”

Hope is optimism with legs, wishing with a plan. Hope is “I have a goal of doing my part to reduce anti-Asian violence. Some pathways available to me are: make donations; contact my elected representatives; talk to my family and community; share my story; pay attention to what’s activating and participate. If I do those things, I will have at least some small impact, and that’s better than no impact.”

Hope is, of course, generally associated with positive health and wellness outcomes. Key to the question of our movements and keeping on keeping on in the dire circumstances in which we find ourselves, more hopeful people keep on and less hopeful people shut down when challenged by a crisis.

If hope feels inaccessible, lucky for us, it can also be learned. This does not surprise me, because I have long held that everything is a skill that can be learned. We can learn by intentionally remembering past successes, journaling intentionally about “hope”, laughing (LOL no srsly)—and then, more concretely, envisioning your goal happening, working toward it, and planning for plot twists (or as Mala and I like to say, “what could possibly go wrong?”).

And finally, and so very not surprisingly, having a strong social support system helps us grow our hope, keep us in the game. We who love someone who expresses hopelessness can lend our hope for them to them. We who are loved can borrow hope from people who love us until it takes root inside us.

I don’t know, friends. My “hope” is still feeling brittle and bruised. But the outpouring of support that I see on social media as well as in my inbox and phone, my “strong social support system,” that I’m borrowing from right now, go a long way toward reminding me that not one single one of us is alone. We’ve got this.


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