In the fall of 2021, after 20 years spent teaching philosophy at universities in Canada and the U.S, I was terminated “with cause” for challenging my university’s COVID policy. Since then, I have been interviewed a number of times about my experience. Of all the questions I am asked during interviews, my least favourite by far — the one that usually comes at the end — is “How can we fix things?”
This question makes me uneasy, like I’m being asked to grope in the dark for something that might not be there. It requires me to look beyond the present darkness toward a brighter, lighter future. It requires hope.
But hope is in short supply these days and it has been for a while.
Everywhere I looked over the last two years, people were losing their livelihoods, neighbours were turning their backs on each other, families were fracturing, and the virtual mud of bullying and cancelation was being slung freely across social media platforms.
Then, of course, there was the constant churning of panic and hysteria, the unreflective silencing and gaslighting, the infectious intolerance, and the palpable moral weakness. In the midst of it all, we seem to have forgotten how to talk to each other, how to listen, how to be human. For two years, we overdosed on lazy arguments, ad hominem attacks, and false dichotomies — basic critical thinking no-nos — in an attempt to create the appearance of civil discourse that is, in fact, just a thin veil over a culture that is toxic to the core.
This toxicity has spread to every level of society: corrupt government, an incurious media, unbridled inflation, and a general malaise settling into the minds of our young people one of whom recently said “basically no one under 40 thinks that anything good can ever happen again.”
Humanity is in the grips of a toxic cocktail of sarcasm, shame, and incandescent rage. Fear has overtaken us, contempt is our default attitude, and our moral failures are so routine they have become normalized, even heroized. We are, I think, in a collective state of despair. So, it isn’t surprising to me that I have a hard time feeling hopeful when asked “How do we fix things?” since despair is the absence or loss of hope (from the Latin “without” [de] and “to hope” [sperare]).
I started to wonder where this desperation came from, what long-term effects it will have on us, and how we might learn to hope again. Shifts in belief aren’t likely to do it. While there might be some internal ‘juggling’ going on here and there, the battle lines are pretty clearly drawn; most people are building fortresses around the beliefs they had in early 2020.
So, how do we navigate the fallout of the last two years? How do we rebuild the burnt bridges? How do we learn to remain at the dinner table when the conversation takes a turn? How do we balance the need to hold on to who we are with the desire to live peaceably with others. How do we learn to be human again? To hope again?
A (very brief) history of hope
As I often do, I started to look for answers in history, in the stories of those who first attempted to grapple with these issues.
Perhaps the most well known story of hope in the ancient world is the tale of Pandora. Famously, after a host of evils escape Pandora’s jar, only hope remained. But if hope is an evil why did it, alone, stay in the jar? And why, if it is good, was it in the jar in the first place?
Some treated hope as frivolous and distracting. Prometheus wrote that Zeus prevented mortals from “foreseeing their fate” by giving them “blind hopes” and, for Solon, “empty hopes” are the indulgences of those who are prone to wishful thinking. The ever pragmatic Seneca said of hope and fear that “the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to.” (Seneca, Letters 5.7-8). For the Stoics, generally, hope distracts us from the real work of figuring out how to live in the moment.
For Camus, the nihilist about many things, hope is a sign of life’s futility, exemplified by Sisyphus’ “futile and hopeless labor” (Camus 119). And for Nietzsche, hope is “the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man” (Nietzsche §71).
But hope received some favourable treatments as well. Plato described hope as one of the “pleasures of anticipation.” Thomas Hobbes called it a “pleasure of the mind.” “Hope springs eternal,” wrote the optimistic Pope. And Emily Dickinson romanticized hope as “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words…”
The history of hope is an interesting but complicated business.
What is hope?
All of this got me thinking about what hope is, whether it is an emotion, a capacity, a virtue or something else.
Psychologists and philosophers tend to agree that hope belongs to the family of moral attitudes that includes belief, desire, faith and optimism. The hopeful person believes that good things are possible, has faith that the future can be better than the present, and is generally optimistic about the efforts of mankind.
But hope is more than just Pollyannaism. While optimism is the belief that the future will be better somehow, hope is the conviction that one can do something to make it turn out better. Hope is not passive. Simply waiting out a desperate situation is like “Waiting for Godot” (who, by the way, never arrives).
Instead, hope is a “compound attitude,” consisting of a desire for a particular outcome and an active attitude towards realizing that outcome (Bloch 201). Researchers in a 2013 study defined hope as “having the will and finding the way,” imagining a logical pathway to bring about our desired goals. Hope is personal. It is grounded in the belief that there are things we can do now to create the better future we imagine.
Hope is an attitude of resourcefulness.
Why do we need it?
Hope is much more than a nice-to-have, a little icing on the cake of a life that’s already going fairly well. It is eminently practical.
A recent study from Harvard’s “Human Flourishing Program” shows that hope is correlated with better overall physical and mental health, including reduced cancer and suicide risk, fewer sleep problems, higher psychological well-being, and the ability to recover more effectively from illness. Notably, hope (or its component beliefs and expectations) is the only variable leading to a person’s improved outcome when the placebo effect is in play.
Hope has great moral value as well and is particularly useful at nurturing courage. While unrestrained fear breeds despair, hopefulness helps to create the confidence we need to be courageous. Confidence, Aristotle tells us, “is the mark of a hopeful disposition.” (Nicomachean Ethics 3.7) Two millennia later Anne Frank wrote that hope “fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”
Hope as a democratic virtue
In thinking about hope, I started to wonder if it has social value as well. One thing it does is remind us of our shared humanity. It gives us a sense of purpose and solidarity. It inspires and catches on. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech offered a message of hope that became contagious. Hope translates the destructive side of our common feelings of powerlessness —fear, uncertainty, resentment, blame — into something constructive and unifying. King, Martha Nussbaum writes, “was very good at turning fear and anger into constructive, do-able work and hope.”
For the enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, hoping together is natural. He wrote that people are united by common hopes and fears, and that the only reason why we remain faithful to the social contract — that implicit agreement that formed society in the first place — is because we hope we will obtain a better life by doing so. Hope, he says, always surpasses fear among people who are free.Michael Lamb formalizes the social value of hope by calling it a democratic virtue that perfects acts of hoping in fellow citizens to achieve democratic goods.
Why does hope have such a power to unite? One reason, I think, is that it gives us a story to tell, a narrative that gives our lives meaning. Richard Rorty describes hope as a meta-narrative, a story that serves as a promise or reason for expecting a better future. Doing this expecting together Rorty calls “social hope,” which requires a “document of promise” from each of us to the other. What a beautiful thought. With all of the things tearing us apart today, I can’t help but be compelled by the idea that a “document of promise” might be able to help put us back together again.
How do we nurture hope as a democratic virtue?
A good place to start is by acknowledging that risk and uncertainty will be with us forever. Aiming to eradicate them is a sign of our arrogance in thinking that this vast, complicated world is one we can control. Being vulnerable to others — being open to the possibility of relying on someone who could hurt you — is part of what it is to be human. But deciding to embrace the riskiness of life — making oneself rationally vulnerable — requires trust, and trust is hard-earned and easily lost in our world where interactions with others are high-risk.
Vulnerability, trust and hope will need to develop slowly and in tandem with one another; little steps toward trust will make us feel less vulnerable and help to create a foundation for hope. And while we’re building this foundation, we can be working to convert our vulnerability into something good, to see it as something that opens us up to the gifts of others, creating the opportunity for developing better relationships.
Is our situation hopeless? It is if we dwell in our despair. But that is an unnatural state. To hope makes us human. As Dostoyevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”
Seneca said we must choose between “projecting our thoughts far ahead of us” or “adapting ourselves to the present.” (Seneca, Letters 5.7-8). I think this is a false dichotomy. We can choose to look beyond the darkness of this moment while being realistic about what we can do in the present to make our hopes for the future a reality. We are tired and desperate, no doubt, but we are also resilient and ingenious.
So how do we build a habit of hope? How do we make hope “sticky” so that it becomes a virtue we can rely on.
There is no denying that this will take time and commitment and moral effort. Much of it needs to happen in our simple daily communications with family and friends, whether we lead with questions, how often we ‘take the bait.’ We need to re-learn how to be curious, how to ask non-rhetorical questions, how to maintain a conversation as our beliefs align and diverge. It takes more time and patience than we might think to tolerate and respect others. Pope may have been right. Hope may spring eternal. But it takes effort to get the spring flowing.
Here are a few things we can do to get it going:
- A room of one’s own: Somewhere along the line, we lost interest in thinking for ourselves. At some point we decided that our primary obligation is to “fit in,” to outsource our thinking, to comply and to conform. In fact, the opposite is true. It is the critical thought of individuals — especially outliers — that has always inspired and regulated the masses. To think critically we need some distance from the “madding crowd,” a “room of one’s own” in which to process what comes at us, in which to find the confidence we need to start hoping again.
- Literature, history, and art: These things help us to feel less hopeless by reminding us that we are not alone, that others have struggled as we do now (and probably more so). They also give us heroes of hope — Florence Nightingale, Atticus Finch, to name just two — who made something constructive out of hopelessness. Art transcends differences and reminds us of the deeper parts of ourselves that the minutia and stresses of life often suppress. We need to re-embrace the liberal arts at all levels of education so we know how to make science and technology serve us (and not the other way around).
- Meaning: Our world, reeling from a postmodernist free-fall, is largely defined by a falling away from past meta-narratives (Marxism, utilitarianism, even Christianity). Without something stepping in to take their place, it’s not surprising we face a crisis of meaning. If we don’t like the old sources of meaning, then we need to find new ones. We need to believe in something in order to be able to hope at all.
- Start with forgiveness: The Harvard study I referred to above identifies things that help to create hope: physical activity, frequency of contact with friends and, interestingly, forgiveness. One study actually found that forgiveness treatments, such as psychotherapeutic intervention to help people forgive others, enhance hope. Hope is a positive feedback system; what you do to nurture it, such as learning to forgive, will become much easier as you build a foundation of hope.
Is hope blind?
Possibly. But that’s part of what makes it so valuable. Our world is heaving with change and uncertainty. It’s hard to find our footing, let alone to feel optimistic, in this atmosphere of risk. But a world without risk, a world in which we have control over all the variables of life, is also a world without the need for hope. Moving forward requires believing that our efforts are meaningful even if they don’t yield exactly what we envision.
Hope’s blindness isn’t a reflection of our naïveté but a sign of the trust and confidence we have in ourselves and in each other. And it’s because of trust and confidence that we are willing to engage in meaningful projects at all. Hope, Dr. Judith Rich says, “is a match in a dark tunnel, a moment of light, just enough to reveal the path ahead and ultimately the way out.”
Will we live to see a better world? Will we work our way out of this present darkness? I don’t know. But we can hope for it. And we can work on it from where we are, with the people we know, in the little choices we make everyday. It’s taken a long time to get us to where we are and it will take a comparable amount of time and effort to rebuild what we’ve lost. We can make the rational choice to hope for a better future. And we can take little steps toward that future by choosing hope right now.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by D. Ross and L. Brown (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope, 3 volumes. Translated by N. Plaice, S. Plaice and P. Knight, The MIT Press, 1986.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Vintage Books, 1955.
Lamb, Michael. “Aquinas and the Virtues of Hope: Theological and Democratic: Aquinas and the Virtues of Hope.” Journal of Religious Ethics, 16 May 2016, pp. 300–332.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human and Beyond Good and Evil, edited by H. Zimmern and P.V. Cohn, Wordsworth Editions, 2008.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Robin Campbell, Penguin, 1969.
Reprinted from the Democracy Fund