Hope and optimism

At the start of 2021 someone sent me an image with the figures 2021 written as ‘Hope’.   I printed it off, framed it, and put it on my window sill, where I could see it every day.  It’s still there, although 2021 has gone, but maybe the instruction to hope should live on through the years, especially given the dragging weight of ‘news’ that acts, for me, at least as a sign that all is lost and we, humans, may as well all give up now.  

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Gratefulness.org inviting me to register for 5-days of practice in making my heart a vessel of hope.

I balked a bit at the language of my heart becoming a vessel of hope, but I get the intention behind the image of a bobbing heart courageously staying afloat on a seething sea of despair with the potential for imminent drowning. 

The same week, that I was invited to do the 5-day course, someone broke the world record for rowing down river in a giant pumpkin  not a typical vessel of hope and  I don’t think of my heart as a giant pumpkin, but nevertheless I felt that the pumpkin journey was a symbolic, if dotty, act of hope.   Thus, taking that as a signal to act, I registered.    

Vacel Havel talked about hope, saying, “Hope… is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”  

I don’t know if the pumpkin trip matched Vacel Havel’s idea that hope is about doing good, but it certainly brought some humour into the propensity for the media doom-mongering that seems to lead to what Rebecca Solnit lists as “despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which [these feelings] often arise.”

I’ve long been one for cultivating hope.  I tend to do it by saying ‘yes’ to stuff that comes along (much more often than saying ‘no’), being open to possibilities and opportunities, exploring ideas and being curious, taking an action rather than sitting stewing in feelings of powerlessness, but sometimes I wonder if it is as dotty a thing to do as rowing down river in a giant pumpkin.  I reasoned that the 5-days of practice would serve to help me revisit and answer that question.

Day 1 opened with a quote from Joanna Macy, “Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act.  We belong to this world.”  The name Joanna Macy rang a bell, which I finally responded to when I realised that, a while ago, I bought her book ‘Active Hope’ and then found it on my bookshelf.   

I see that I’d turned down a corner of page 230 and marked the sentences: “Thank goodness for uncertainty.  When we know the future isn’t yet decided, there is room for us to play a role in influencing what happens.”  That ability to play with uncertainty is a necessary ingredient of hope.  

And, indeed, the interaction of hope with uncertainty formed part of the intro to the programme, the argument running being “It’s in these times [of shared challenges and a profound, collective uncertainty about the future] that cultivating hope as an orientation to life can let in some much-needed light, nourish our hearts, remind us of possibility, and inspire new action in our lives and the world”.

Taking small, new, actions to work for good in the face of uncertainty is worthwhile, I think.  The world is peppered with people doing exactly that, and making enormous, positive difference, perhaps in ways unknown to us yet.  Think of Alexei Navalny  or Kwajo Tweneboa exemplifying hope, or people on our own doorsteps campaigning for this and that, or others simply living hopefully with uncertainty.  

As I was prompted into thinking more about hope, I began to wonder if hope and optimism are linked or even synonymous.  This question took me down a route where I learned that hope and optimism are very different.  I found several interesting writings about the differences between the two.  One of them cites a study that “suggests that people can be very optimistic but only mildly hopeful or vice versa.”

That now seems obvious, Navalny isn’t necessarily optimistic that he will achieve his aims and neither do the campaigners for whatever, sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t but it doesn’t make them relinquish hope. 

Hope is powerful antidote to despair.  As Sally Roger’s brilliantly sings, ’There’s no time to be hopeless, there’s so much work to do.’   She points out that most things are done one step at a time:  building a house one brick at a time, living our lives one breath at a time, reading a book one word at a time, etc.

The first day of the practice proposed: “As you make your way through the day, do so with the intention of identifying 3-5 sources of hope in the world. Begin to build a practice of attuning to those things that deliver a sense of hope, that remind you that hope is alive and well in the world.”

That didn’t seem a difficult assignment for me.  As I left my house, I walked past our lovely little Urban Green now vibrant with flowers in assorted containers, enjoyed by the neighbourhood.  I picked up my gorgeous grandchildren who were bursting with energy and looking forward to our daily road trip. And in a rare moment in the day when they were both absorbed in something simultaneously, I read Positive News.  

I’ve printed off the day two set of “13 simple but powerful tools and tips for staying clear and grounded – and able to remain hopeful”,  Caring for Self and Others in Times of Trouble: Some Spiritual Tools and Tips, A Short Essay by Alexander Levering Kern.   They’re a good reminder to have to hand.

And on day four I was prompted to “identify one hopeful action you can take this week, ideally today. Will you reach out to someone with encouragement or healing, give your time or resources to a cause you care about, create something, plant something, take a courageous step toward a goal?”  Off I trotted to take cuttings from my lavender and rosemary – ready to plant on Urban Green when they have rooted.

The challenge of day five “begin building an altar as a testament to hope” isn’t something that appeals to me in any physical sense – the suggestions being a plant, photos, stones, mementos.  But the idea of willingness to invest in and to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”   I am happy to develop as a my testament to hope. It embodies day three’s practice, “to cultivate hope as an orientation to life by opening ourselves to surprise and wonder.”

3 thoughts on “Hope and optimism”

  1. “Hope is a discipline.”

    These are the words of Mariame Kaba, organizer, abolitionist, and educator who leads Project NIA, an organization with a vision to end youth incarceration. Mariame’s work, rooted in racial justice, gender justice and anti-violence across generations, countries and systems has earned her a multitude of honors and awards.

    Kaba says, “hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense.”

    Instead, hope chooses to push forward, imagining and participating in a future that is better and fairer than our current reality


  2. A Tracy Chapman song, Dreaming on a World’ has inspiring words on hope:
    I know I may be wishing on a world
    That may never be
    But I’ll keep on wishing
    No matter how hopeless
    Or foolish it may seem
    I’ll keep on wishing
    I’ll toss my coins in the fountain
    I’ll look for clovers in grassy lawns
    Search for shooting stars in the night
    Cross my fingers and dream on
    I know I may be dreaming of a world
    Far from present day reality
    But I’ll keep on dreaming
    No matter how unrealistic
    Or naive it may seem
    Always keep dreaming
    And toss your coins in the fountain
    Look for clovers in grassy lawns
    Search for shooting stars in the night
    Cross your fingers and dream on
    We must always be thinking of a world
    As a place of infinite possibilities
    Always keep thinking
    No matter how hopeless
    Or foolish it may seem
    Always keep thinking
    And toss our coins in the fountain
    Look for clovers in grassy lawns
    Search for shooting stars in the night
    Cross our fingers and dream on
    I’ll keep on wishing
    We must always keep dreaming
    Of a world with equality and justice, thinking
    There could be a world
    Without poverty and sickness, wishing
    Of a world without hunger and homelessness, dreaming
    Of a world where all people live in peace, dreaming
    Of a world
    On a world


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