Hope in the Time of Cholera

Hope in the Time of Cholera

Buried in the 260,000 words President Trump has spoken during the pandemic, are these twelve words of utter truth: “The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope.”

Yes, we’re looking for hope. But if we’re looking for hope in the words of our elected officials, medical professionals, or technical experts, we’re looking in all the wrong places.

The search for truthful answers to our questions, necessary for survival, will not automatically deliver hope. Hope is not built into what we hope for. Hope is how we hold a potential outcome, positive or negative. Hope doesn’t require the light of a new dawn; hope is always a choice available to us, even in our darkest hour.

If a vaccination for coronavirus is discovered soon, many of us will feel hopeful that the current crisis will eventually reach an end. But hopefulness is not an inherent outcome of such good news. Some of us will immediately feel disappointed that it’s taken so long to find a preventative solution; others will remain furious about how poorly we dealt with the crisis from the beginning; some will despair, now knowing that for most people nothing will change; many more, riddled with fear, may not trust the news; still others will ignore any feelings of ambivalence or anticipation whatsoever, and will want to jump into action.

No circumstance can instill hope in us. No authority can make us feel hope. No doctor can inject hope. It is up to us—in anguish, in boredom, in momentary joy—to frame life as hopeful. Hope is a choice we can make by virtue of what makes us human, up until the end. As a retired farmworker said to Studs Terkel in his oral history of hope: “Hope dies last.”

The story of Pandora and her jar offers us a clue about the nature of hope. Pandora, sent to earth by Jupiter as punishment for stealing fire from heaven, opened a strange jar and let loose all manner of diseases and evils. All that remained in the jar was hope. So then, is hope just another form of human suffering—the one that didn’t get away? Or is it a precious jewel, the everlasting symbol of divine care? The story seems ambiguous in its meaning. And that’s the point. Pandora’s hope mirrors the human condition. We are paradoxical creatures. We are capable of feeling contradictory emotions in the same moment—anger and love, pride and guilt, sadness and joy—and we are free to choose what it all means.

So, what is hope? Definitions of hope abound in literature, psychology, poetry and scripture. We’ve described it as head, heart, and hands endeavoring to form a better future. We know it as a working relationship with a preferred outcome. It can be expressed cynically, or superficially, but it is not a throw-away expression. We find it everywhere and in every culture. And we know it as a choice.

What does it mean to choose hope?

Based on our research, we’ve characterized five categories of practical moves that invite hopefulness. How do they apply now?

  1. Welcome the possible.

With hope, we begin to realize possibilities inherent in both the situation we face and in ourselves. The coronavirus pandemic is presenting everyone with real challenges on a constant basis. Two questions apply: are the challenges I choose to face within the realm of possibility? Impossible challenges invite defeat—and easy challenges aren’t challenges at all. And can I exercise my creativity and resourcefulness in finding answers because there are options available? I want to be a part of the solution and feel passion for the possible.

Are you able to create and maintain a personal safety routine that fits your preferences and environment? You can do this.

  1. Be your own best agent.

Take actions that lead toward a better future. Exercise control over the quality and nature of your life. Be instrumental in living your life’s purpose. Test the limits of what you think is in your power to accomplish. Be an agent of change.

It’s within your power to make stuff happen every day. Is there someone you’re thinking about who would appreciate a call? Is there a task or chore you’ve been avoiding? Can you habit and start practicing it right away? Can you begin a big project by taking the first small step?

Being an agent means getting off your duff. It’s what differentiates hope from wishing, dreaming, happy talk, and crossing fingers.

  1. Only do what is genuinely worthwhile.

We can extend our empathy to the wider world and exhibit care for all of humanity. But first we need to focus on ourselves and what brings us the experience of being fully alive.

A sense of worth is always both meaningful and inspirational. In our research, people spoke of worth with a focus on self and worth with a focus on others. Self-focus includes my doing good work, feeling valued, maintaining strong and loving relationships, living my values, and valuing me. Other focus means caring for others, meeting my obligations as a member of society, and contributing to something larger than me.

Hope’s objects must be worthwhile for us to feel energy and purpose. People can find meaning and a sense of calling no matter what it is they do. We can find it by delivering products and services that make us proud. We can find it by shaping our jobs to have personal significance. And we can find it in the integrity of our associations.

  1. Be open to what might or might not happen.

Open is the ancestor of the word up, as in raising a lid. Openness means not being shut, confined, or sealed. It implies vulnerability, receptivity, accessibility, being unafraid—and not denying reality because we don’t like it.

Truth and transparency are the lifeblood of openness. We become hopeful when the truth is being told, when reality is now out in the open for all to see. I can then choose how I want to be.

When I trust the unexpected (and in reality, the future is always unexpected) I set the stage for learning. Openness is inclusive of people, ideas, and outcomes. People experience the freedom to challenge the status quo, to experiment, and to learn from their collective experience.

Openness is the principle inside hope that kicks in when I open my eyes in the morning. I can be intrigued about what will unfold.

  1. Just Connect.

Our most cherished hopes are pointless outside community. We can only make important things happen in relationship with others.

The practice of storytelling lies in the heart of connection. Our stories connect us to each other and to our shared experiences. Our stories give us identity and meaning. Our stories honor our values and teach our children.

Dialogue, a way of communicating in a group that produces shared meaning by welcoming difference, builds a sense of the connected whole.

Listening to one another with empathy and without judgement connects us at deep levels.

We can do all of these, and more, while being physically distanced.

Both of your authors are cancer survivors. Hope’s nemesis is fear. Fear partners with worry, panic, dread and surrender. When one of us was in that liminal space between treatment and recovery, feeling scared, shaky and somewhat bewildered, the physical therapist said, “You’ve got this.” It was time to put my body back together. I chose hope. I’m fully alive.

“Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space,” says Maya Angelou. “Invite one to stay.” You’ve got this.