Hang on to hope!

Optimism for disarmament

By Trudy Govier | 1995-03-01 12:00:00

Over two millennia ago the philosopher Heraclitus said, "He who does not expect what cannot be expected will not make the unattainable attainable." To bring about significant changes, we need hope. In hoping, we can believe in the possibility of an improved world. Its likelihood depends on us. When we hope for a more secure world, a world of greater justice and diminished militarism, we seek that world. Our hopes propel us forward to action.

Irresponsible Optimism

Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimists believe that things will work out in the end. Though helpful for salesmen and entrepreneurs, optimism can be dangerously facile. Optimism in the fifties about nuclear waste disposal is a case in point. With no solution in mind, engineers and planners blithely assumed that they would find safe ways of storing radioactive wastes for ten thousand years. This optimism was irresponsible. Hope does not take positive outcomes for granted, but it is sensitive to positive possibilities. People who work for nuclear disarmament, for instance, are not optimists believing such a good is bound to come, but hopeful and committed to making its possibility a reality.

Most events have multiple causes. Simplistic models of causes can paralyze us. Think, for instance, of the idea that the troubles in the former Yugoslavia are caused by "centuries-old hatred." This glib explanation encourages people to ignore factors such as poverty, unemployment, political machinations, and international policies and interventions. It implies inevitability and helplessness. How could the outcome of "centuries-old" feelings be anything but brutality and violence? The simplistic explanation is intellectually wrong and psychologically counterproductive.

Everything that happens in human life, history, and politics has multiple meanings, causes, and effects. With hope we can be alert to these, and respond in creative ways.

Hope affects our focus of attention, our labelling of events, our causal understanding, and the predictions we make. Seeing opportunities for positive action, we can do something. It is people and their actions that make history. We are not twigs tossed about on a turbulent ocean of history, but agents in historical events and processes. In 1944 when the Nazis occupied his country, the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel argued that hope does not so much emerge from our experience as structure that experience. He wrote, "In hoping for liberation I help prepare the way." Because of the connection between what we believe is possible and what is possible, agents of social change should never give up hope.

The bud, the fresh blade of grass, the sunrise, the newborn baby ... these represent potentiality. The future is open: fundamental and unexpected changes are basic facts. The past does not fully determine the future, which can change in surprising ways due to human interventions or the cumulative effects of small perturbations.

Future Futures

As was apparent with the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, past futures have not been like past pasts. Future futures need not be like the past and present. Reality itself grounds our hope that the future may differ from the present. And we can act to make it so.

In despair or cynicism we see events as fixed and inevitable. Things are dismal, people are greedy and self-interested and they will ever remain so. There is no possibility of positive change. Such attitudes are not only counterproductive but untrue. Reality has under-determined elements that can be affected by human interpretations and actions. Is the U.N. a cumbersome bureaucracy, slow to act? Is the Security Council too open to political manipulation? Do developing countries spend too much on arms and too little on public health? The answer to these questions is yes, but the problems also point to the need for constructive interventions.

In his book Weapons and Hope, Freeman Dyson contrasted the time frames of the politician (four years--the time between elections), the mother (20 years to rear a child to adulthood), and the grandparent (50 years for a child to mature and rear its own child). Nuclear disarmament, a banning of land mines, or an effective arms trade register may be impossible in four years, but quite possible in 20 or 50. With its tie to a sense of what's possible, hope is strongly linked to time. Unlike the medievals, who could work with confidence over hundreds of years to build a grand cathedral for generations in the future, we moderns want it all now. Ours is a quick-fix culture; ads promise instant gratification and television sitcoms show all problems resolved in half an hour. Hope takes patience.

For all this, hope needs to be tempered with realism, even with pessimism. Looking for the positive, seeking opportunities for constructive change, anticipating the best, clinging to our sense that good outcomes are attainable, we still cannot afford to gloss over the negatives. We need, not despair or cynicism, but a balance of hope and informed pessimism.

Accurate Pessimism

Martin Seligman's widely-read book Learned Optimism cites many studies showing that optimism is advantageous for health, relationships, and career success. Pessimists tend to undermine their own efforts and, in many areas, fare worse than optimists. The paradox is that, in study after study, pessimists turn out to be more accurate in judging reality than optimists. At the same time, pessimists are less effective as agents. The truth, it seems, does not "set you free." On the contrary: it can be a handicap in life. The solution to this paradox is a mixture of pessimism and hope. We cannot set aside critical thinking and caution.

But we have examples from brave men and women who sustained hope. Clara Park, who labored over 20 years to help her autistic daughter connect with the community, wrote, "Hope is not a gift of circumstance or disposition. It is a virtue like faith or love, to be practiced whether or not we find it easy or natural, because it is necessary to our survival as human beings."

The ancient Cynics and Stoics argued that human beings should not hope, because we are bound to be disappointed. They advised withdrawing into oneself, isolating oneself from events in order to avoid hurt. Whatever its merits 2,000 years ago, such advice would be dangerous today. With the viability of the planet in jeopardy, no one can retreat into a mental fortress. In our time, hope is not an emotional lapse.

And disappointment? What overcomes disappointment is more hope, an underlying latent hope that allows us to transcend depression and pursue new projects. Hope is the attitude that defeats evidence against itself. If disappointed, we go on to something new, and hope again. As philosopher Erich Fromm said, "To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime."

Trudy Govier is a Calgary philosopher.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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