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How to hope: Have we been doing it wrong all this time?

By January 30, 2021No Comments

Gillian Roddie on what hope looks like when you’re living in a pandemic, and asks how exactly do we hope for a tomorrow that might not even exist?

I hit a wall this week, and judging from the response I got when I posted about it on Instagram (do feelings even happen if they aren’t featured on social?) I’m not alone.


We’ve moved past the point of ennui, and seem to have shifted into a collective state of melancholy. It’s all a little much isn’t it, people are quietly admitting. January has never been an easy month, but it’s also when we start to plan trips for brighter months ahead and mentally picture get-togethers to enjoy the grand stretchy evenings. 

Not in 2021 we won’t. 

We won’t be holidaying abroad this summer, and Temple Bar will see another quiet Paddy’s Day. Festivals look almost certain to be cancelled or postponed. Schools will return, but later than any of us could have anticipated, and plans are already underfoot to alter the Leaving Cert (again). We came into 2021 with promises of hope in the form of vaccines, but stalled production and international squabbling is threatening the timeliness of their administration.

We are living our lives in the absence of a future. How do we hope for a tomorrow that doesn’t exist? How do we hope in a winter that’s beginning to feel like it won’t end?

Hope: redefined

Hope is a pretty complex concept, and can be defined in very different ways depending on whose perspective imbues it: a psychologist might tell us that hope is how we aspire for a better outcome in a tough situation, a minister or rabbi sees hope as a virtue and a key concept in religious theory and practice, and a doctor would view hope as an integral part of the recovery process from illness. Hope is also powerful, and its absence (in the form of hopelessness) has been shown to have adverse effects on health

We can look at hope as having similarities to stress: neither are felt linearly, nor are they singular feelings or emotions. Like stress, hope is always around us, sometimes inside us, and waxes and wanes during challenging events and beyond. Even now, you’ll likely find that there’s some days you can fully imagine yourself sitting in your favourite bar with your favourite people drinking your favourite drink just as you like it. Other days, you feel certain with every bone in your body that it will never happen again. 

Hope is a popular topic for meme quotes right now, they’re littered all over our social media feeds supplying inspirational soundbites that may or may not be correctly attributed to an inspirational figure. I’m not quite sure if that’s what Richard Dawkins had in mind when he first coined the term “meme”, but their definition still holds very true: they are undoubtedly ideas which spread easily through culture. Most of the #inspo meme quotes we see now are less about making us feel good and all about branding and increasing reach. And thanks to something called the “truthiness effect” (where we judge words accompanied by a picture as more truthful than text on its own) we tend not to question them. If a meme quote tells us to hope for brighter days, then that’s that right?

Hope is not binary

Except you can’t wrap hope neatly into 100 characters in Cavolini font. Hope is dynamic, fluid and complex; and despite what meme quotes may tell us, it’s not a “have” or “have not” binary option. We could all be forgiven for feeling that hope is out of our reach right now – at the least the kind our timelines encourage us to have in abundance – but neither do we need to settle for hopelessness, for that is truly a difficult state. As with so many things, social media has been presenting us with a polished version of hope, a tangible thing that we can hold in our hands, hearts or heads to lead us out of the dark when the reality is significantly more nuanced and messy. If hope and hopelessness both feel like too much right now, what’s the alternative? 

In 2010 family therapist Kaethe Weingarten wrote about the concept of “reasonable hope”. She recognised that many people can feel alienated from hope as a concept: “hope may be the most laden shorthand term of all time.” she said, “everyone wants it; few know how to articulate what it is.” Even the quote memes and literary greats rely on metaphor to describe it: Dickinson likens it to “the thing with feathers”, Aristotle declares hope “a waking dream” and Tennyson says it “smiles from the threshold of the year to come”. In these versions, hope is a noun. Weingarten suggests that hope is rather a verb: a thing we do, we do it in the right now, and we do it together, collectively. Where Hope is about placing all of our optimistic eggs in a basket found in the future, Reasonable Hope’s objective is to make sense of what exists now to help prepare us to meet what lies ahead.

If we consider this in the context of the pandemic to date, it’s easy to see why Hope is something many of us are likely struggling with. We hunkered down during Lockdown 1 with the promise of better times in the latter half of the year and cheerily told ourselves and each other that it would all be well over by Christmas. In Lockdown 2 we mollified our worries with reassurance that this would surely be the last time we’d have to do this, once bitten, twice shy and all that. And yet, here we are. Having learnt lessons around expectation management in the general populous, the government has warned us that our journey through Lockdown 3 will not be over quickly, with current restrictions set to last for the next six months. The Hope egg basket feels too far away to put anything into, too elusive and abstract now. If this really were a thing with feathers, one could reasonably conclude that it’s migrated somewhere very, very far away. 

Perceiving possibility

There’s a psychologist at Stanford called Carol Dweck who is renowned for her work on mindsets, particularly how a fixed versus growth mindset can affect our motivation. The research has primarily focused on school students, but the concepts are applicable in a variety of settings. At its core, the idea is simple: a fixed mindset suggests that who we are is static, unchangeable, a thing. Growth mindsets see the self as changeable, malleable and capable of development. You can try on the theories for size quite easily: think of something you cannot do (a fixed mindset approach); now tell yourself you cannot do that thing yet (growth mindset). It feels different, it feels… possible. (Even Sesame Street recognises the value of those three letters.)

And so just as Hope might be perceived as fixed and immutable, Reasonable Hope offers room for growth, allowing despair and development to sit side by side. Imagine how much gentler we could be on ourselves if we acknowledged that doubt and disappointment would be just as much a part of the journey ahead as the steps towards our goals? While uncertainty has been something our primitive brain has rallied against since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Reasonable Hope offers us the opportunity to see that the uncertainty, along with the openness and influenceable nature of the future, as something to cautiously embrace (not for a second suggesting that it’s easy mind you, I mean we all have limits…). It offers us the opportunity to see the future with a growth mindset, and acknowledge that things aren’t ok, yet

We came into Lockdown 3 operating off a deficit – Christmas time hadn’t afforded us the same opportunities to replenish and restock our mental stocks that the summer staycations and 90 minute dinners had between Lockdowns 1 & 2, and as a result there’s been a distinctly hopeless twinge to the start of 2021. But maybe we were doing it wrong, instead of seeing hope in all its complexity, we’ve been treating it the same two dimensional way the meme quotes were. Perhaps hope isn’t the thing with feathers at all, it’s the flight path it is taking, and both optimism and despair are an inherent part of the journey like sunshine, rain and frequent Covid hailstones; it is a thing we do, we do it in the right now, and we do it together, collectively. 


Photo by Jenelle Hayes on Unsplash