By Peter G. Prontzos
Is hope a good thing? Many people think it is, but all depends….
It may help to remember the story of Pandora, the first woman and the one to whom the gods of Olympus gave a jar full of evils: old age, toil, insanity, greed, and so on. Pandora was warned not to open the jar, but her curiosity got the best of her, and when she lifted the lid, she unleashed those plagues on humankind. When she quickly closed the lid, only one evil remained: delusive hope.
Many who have interpreted the story of Pandora did not realize that even hope can be problematic – it all depends on the circumstances.
In The Optimism Bias, neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains that one of the unconscious biases that our brains produce is hope. She writes that the tendency to see the world through rose-tinted glasses evolved primarily because, “optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into
our most complex organism, the brain.”
Her basic argument is straightforward: that while this distortion of
reality can be dangerous in some situations, it generally pays off in the long
run. As Sharot explains, this “illusion” has a tendency to lower stress and
anxiety while increasing one’s motivation to act, thereby improving the chances
of a positive outcome.
(She does not, however, accept the silly “secret” that one’s thoughts have the ultimate power to determine reality).
On the dark side, however, hope can be personally and socially a trap that leads to disaster.
The main problem is when hope is unrealistic, and that usually happens when it is an automatic – and usually unconscious – defense against painful feelings. As Arthur Janov and others have shown, we often cope with our traumas and fears, not by facing them, but by repressing them. This defense is very common in unhealthy relationships, when people don’t leave because they “hope” that – somehow – things will work out.
In the science fiction series “Dune”, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood use their, “Litany Against Fear” – a very Primal approach – to help focus their minds and calm themselves:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Unrealistic hope can also prevent people from combating the many political and ecological threats that we face today, such as militarism, patriarchy, racism and the climate crisis. Derrick Jensen explained that:
Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.
To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness.”
On the other hand, liberating oneself from false hopes is necessary to actually have any real hope of success. Jensen concludes that,
When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. [https://orionmagazine.org/article/beyond-hope/]
In one very important sense, hope may also be irrelevant. Even if optimism is not “realistic” – given the terrible state of the world – people still need to organize for progressive change. Indeed, the more desperate a situation appears to be, the more urgency there is in creating a healthy resistance.
To cite just one powerful example: secret White House tape recordings of Richard Nixon show that he was ready to drop nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese, until it was explained to him that the reaction of the peace movement – and of other people in the U.S. and around the world – would make such a war crime politically disastrous for him.
So, while we can never be sure that any situation is truly hopeless, we can be sure that our inaction will lead to disaster.
Note: Here is a link to an up-to-date discussion of hope and the climate crisis.
The Guardian 21 September 2017
Climate optimism has been a disaster. We need a new language – desperately
The HOPE ? by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.