Radical hope

I went wandering through the internet a few days ago and found these quotes, and was moved to put them together into a little story.

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.
To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.
(Vaclav Havel, Dale Carnegie and Raymond Williams)

I have a complicated relationship with hope and her sisters — power, will, fortune, privilege, guts, blind dumb stubbornness. I struggle with the difference between “being realistic” and quivering on the track with my eyes closed while the train comes roaring through, because frankly the difference isn’t always so apparent to me. And here’s the thing: sometimes what passes for hope in this world isn’t so different from that quivering helplessness either. It’s not always easy to know whether to stand or step aside or actually leap and grapple.

But I do know that I like today’s little story: it’s not about being helpless or willfully blind; and I never want to be convinced by despair.

8 thoughts on “Radical hope”

  1. I love the title of this post and your “little” story.

    Fuck despair. I never want to be driven by despair. I’m wondering about the second part of your story; I like to think that the person keeps going because there is still a tiny ray of hope there, and that it’s the world around her that believes there is no hope. Because I keep going back to that thing of there has to be hope. Even if it’s so tiny it is barely perceptible. But maybe (just maybe) that would be better termed a why. That they wanted it so badly they had the courage to keep going anyway. (BTW I read THE LADIES OF MADRIGAN and really enjoyed it) I’m pretty sure there have been times in my life that I was not clear on a why, but I kept going for some unknown reason that I later termed hope. Where that hope came from or why it was there, I can’t say.

    And I’ve been re-evaluating my beliefs about hope. Not totally sure where I’m going with this yet, but I wanted to tell you about something I read recently.

    It’s a book about healing and and our surroundings – she’s primarily talking about architecture – often as it relates to hospitals. It’s called HEALING SPACES, by Esther Sternberg.

    I bought the book not knowing that there was a chapter in it on the hormones of hope and healing.

    She starts with looking at ‘miracle cures’ – ones that occur suddenly – like in places such as Lourdes and examines the placebo affect. She has pulled together a bunch of studies (fMRIs, etc.) done on people (Buddhist monks, Franciscan nuns) doing meditation. She says that these studies (these are not new) all prove that “profound changes do occur in the brain during meditation and prayer—changes that create a unique state of mind different from wakefulness or sleep. It is a state that involves the parts of the brain that cause us to seek reward and feel joy when we achieve it. The pursuit of reward is even more powerfully felt than the achievement of it. In this pursuit, one must have an inkling of the possible reward that lies ahead. This inkling can be called hope, it can be called belief, or it can, in the most stripped-down scientific sense, be called expectation.”

    I interpret that to mean (if true) that a hopeful path/journey can feel better than the actual achievement.

    Then in an attempt to identify what that process might be in the brain, she takes a look at other studies done with pain killers and placebos. It’s interesting stuff. Studies have shown that “the placebo effect has a biological basis that is at least in part due to the brain’s own opiate-like molecules.” (hormones like dopamine) “Expectation plays a very important role in the placebo effect.” Expectations can cause the release of nerve chemicals with then alter nerve-cell activity. Some people respond in this way to expectations more then others.

    She postulates that people experience powerful emotional responses in places like Lourdes and that those emotions trigger the release of dopamine, which in turn can trigger the release of cortisol (a powerful anti-inflammatory) as well as other chemicals that have “profound and rapid effects on alleviating pain, lifting mood, facilitating movement, and reducing inflammation.” Affecting the immune system and healing. Those people have expectation, but they also experience major feelings of love and peace. She postulates that they are also releasing oxytocin (partly because of love and compassion) as well as other hormones beneficial in healing. She cites studies done on various animals that prove that oxytocin speeds wound healing. So does social isolation.

    When we have hope, we are stimulating the dopamine reward pathways. This has been proven to stimulate the immune system and healing which is what she is talking about in this book. But I am also thinking about it in terms of other things – like my own goals/plans/etc. Those same chemicals (she talks about several) could lead to success. Whatever one’s own personal definition of that is. For me it has to include enjoying the journey.

    Well, I’m still thinking about all of that, but one thing I know for sure is – I need to have more sex!

    Anyway. I thought it was pretty interesting. What do you think?

  2. Well, this isn’t about hope, but I’d add to life’s little lessons that the time to attempt something is before you know it’s impossible. Once you’ve seen it as impossible, you’re kinda screwed. I think a lot of people could benefit from that insight, I know I have.

    I’ve been in despair at times – I’ve had a life-threatening illness in a country with crap healthcare – but no, thanks to good friends despair has never been in the driver’s seat for long.

  3. Jennifer, we’ve had a lot of conversations about hope on this blog (grin), and I think our mileage varies. That’s fine with me. There is more than one way to look at almost everything, including this.

    I have personal experience of feeling no “hope” — meaning, in the hormonal terms you describe, that there was no expectation and no dopamine and no Little Engine That Could shiny track to keep me going. Not meaning to sound cynical. But I’ve felt that utter lack. That doesn’t mean I sat down in the middle of the road and stopped breathing. If your story is that people who keep going do so because of some tiny ray of hope, that’s cool. But it’s not my story.

    This is connected for me with the conversation about Ian Welsh’s essay “The Personal Politics of Hopelessness.” I’m hoping (hah) to have more to say about it when I clear a few other things out of my head — these are conversations that want a lot of space in my brain…

    Zack, I’m glad you survived your illness and that you had friends to help. I think one of the most pervasive cultural dynamics we have is that we’re often taught to push away help when we most need it. All that rugged individualism…

  4. Yes, I know we are not exactly on the same page with the hope thing (and yep I’m ok with that), but I’m not sure we’re so far off either. What I keep trying to understand though – is what is it that kept you going in those moments of absolute hopelessness? Something inside you, right? Or I guess we could get outside help in those moments as well.

    There have maybe been only two times in my life when I felt completely devoid of hope. And I pretty much did nothing to move forward. But I did get through it. Alone. Slowly and painfully. The fact that I did make it makes me think that there must’ve been some spark there. Something more than simple animal survival instinct.

    In my comments here, I wasn’t talking about that tho – here, I’m just meant to say that I think it is better when we do have hope. Hope sets things inside us in motion, helps us feel better, helps us enjoy the process, etc. And now there are studies that show why that could be so.

    I’m still thinking of getting back to that other conversation too. But I was patiently waiting to see if you were going back there.

  5. Part of the problem is how you are perceived by the system if you need help. Getting on disability is one of the most humiliating processes one can face. The system tells you you are useless in such a pervasive way that you start to think that everyone, including your friends, thinks so too. It’s a hard road that requires a lot of reality checks

  6. I was thinking that maybe it has something to do with courage – being courageous enough to keep going no matter what.

    But to me being courageous means that there is something worth fighting for. A big why. (hey wait a minute – now we’re back to that other conversation) So maybe that’s what I’m including in my definition of hope. Wanting something – anything enough to keep going. Because if one hits obstacles why try to work around them if there is no reason to – no place to go? Maybe that is more important – the wanting. And maybe I’ve been including that in my idea of hope. Those times I was remembering when I felt most hopeless were times when I didn’t think there was anything worth fighting for. But somewhere inside me was still a small grain of what could be (not that I expect it) that finally grew big again.

  7. I just went back and read what I wrote in my first comment here. Sorta contradicting myself and getting circular in my thinking on all this, but I think it’s because some of these words are so closely related in my mind.

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