Researching the Black Lives Matter uprising last summer, I interviewed activists about their motivations, visions of a brighter world, and what it would take to build such a world. They shared their horror stories, but also their deeply held hopes, hope for a world in which survival is not a struggle, where there is even the capacity to thrive.
Hope is fragile and precious. It is an essential ingredient in envisioning a brighter world, and deigning to work towards one. And yet, it is jealously guarded, uncomfortable to address, sometimes even explained away with embarrassment. In today’s era of pandemic, climate chaos, and economic turbulence, it seems people do not often feel that they have the right to hope.
I believe we have not just the right but the responsibility to hope. For without hope, we cannot put in the work to create something better. At the risk of sounding inane, without hope, we are… hopeless.
Yet both hope and despair build on themselves. Once we give into despair, it seems to swallow us whole. We start to feel despair about our despair, despair about others’ despair. The first seed of hope about the possibility of hope might then come from a surprising discovery: that hope is not something that merely happens to us – it can be consciously cultivated.
I was shocked yesterday while reading Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, as she lists the ‘cognitive emotional process’ which is the recipe for hope, almost as an afterthought. From the research of C. R. Snyder, it is a three step process:
1. Goal: Developing a vision of what we want to change, what we want to achieve, how we want to transform the world. Acknowledging these can feel vulnerable, but even the discussion of them with trusted people can develop brighter, more inspiring goals. Often, we start from a knowledge of what we don’t want, like the negative image of a world we do want, which then has to be developed into a true color picture.
2. Pathway: Developing a sense of how to get ‘there’ from here. One example is in the call to defund the police, a pathway towards demilitarizing and disarming communities. Brown specifies that this sense of pathway often includes an understanding of grit and failure – that there will be detours, Plan Bs, and challenging moments. The understanding of pathway doesn’t mean knowing all the steps already, but having a general sense of the direction, accompanied by the confidence that we will find the rest of the puzzle pieces along our journey. Which touches on…
3. Agency: The belief in our capacity to find the path and stay the course. My research findings showed that this one is the most illuminating ingredient of the three – when faced with a task as gargantuan as changing the world, we know we are too small to do it alone. Seeing a mass movement of people is thus a source for hope, as we recognize ourselves in each other and start to see the capacity in that movement. Maybe I can’t do this alone, but maybe I can do it by locking arms with all these other people.
As more and more people feel increasing despair in the face of multiple out-of-control crises and the threat climate change poses against humanity, our only chance of finding a pathway out of this apocalyptic future towards a sustainable and just world starts from the belief that such a pathway exists at all. We can find what we’re looking for – especially when enough people are dedicated to the search.
There is a global conversation going on right now about alternatives, goals, and pathways. We need to spotlight where these are being tested and tried, where steps along the path are already being made. And if each of us continues to contribute where we can, and make connections across the struggle, then that collective can be a conscious source of hope.