We are going through a time of collective despair. The combined impacts of a pandemic, natural disasters and patriarchy-, racism- and caste-based violence can be overwhelmingly difficult to process. As we come face to face (not for the first time) with the lack of empathy and cruelty that human beings are capable of and how powerless we are before the full force of nature, illusions of fairness and safety have been washed away. Yet, in order for us to move ahead, and to begin healing from this collective trauma, we need to keep hope alive.
Why is Hope Important?
How is hope related to collective healing and change? Research around Hope Theory in positive psychology, Collective Hope in the social sciences and sustaining hope in environmental movements tells us that hope is a critical motivator for action. In order to take steps towards healing and social justice, we need hope. And success of our action fuels more hope, creating an infinite loop of hope and successful action.
On an individual level, hope has been found to improve subjective well being and build positive emotion- this gives us the energy to move ahead. And collective hope is a key component of social justice movements. Researchers have pointed out that, in the absence of hope, social initiatives tend to break apart.
I’m definitely not trying to imply that the hope-action loop is some kind of a foolproof formula. One big issue is that hope is contingent on successful action- achieving what was hoped for. And this is not always possible, especially due to the huge systemic and structural flaws in our messed up world. It is true that, if our actions do not result in what we hoped for, the sense of frustration and despair will probably be amplified.
Yet, it is important to recognise that the interrelationship of hope and action does give us an understanding of why we need to sustain hope: action for healing and positive social change is impossible without this. In other words, all actions for collective healing and social justice become acts of hope. And these acts of hope reinforce the sense of hope we experience.
So, to sustain hope right now, we need to engage in acts of hope.
But what exactly is an act of hope? And how do we avoid being falsely or obliviously hopeful? To figure this out, lets understand what ‘hope’ really means.
Hope Theory: Individual and Collective Hope
Hope Theory in defines hope as “the belief that one can find pathways to desired goals and become motivated to use these pathways” (Synder et al, 2002: 257) . This struck me as an interesting definition, especially since most of us are used to thinking of hope as something we feel, but this defines hope as something we think. Hope theory posits that hope has three facets: 1) being clear about the goals we want to reach, 2) knowing how we want to reach them and 3) believing that we can do it. And this theory applies not just to individuals but to collectives as well. And if hope is really a cognitive process (which leads to positive emotion), then it can be learned and it can be translated into acts of hope.
Ways to Keep Hope Alive in Messy Times
So far, we’ve talked about how engaging in acts of hope can keep hope alive. But how do we know whether we will really be able to get to where we hoped through our actions? And how to sustain hope if we don’t? This idea is especially pertinent in these unpredictable times. In order to find a solution to this conundrum, I turned towards writing by people who work in some of the fields that seem to be characterised by the most despair: palliative care, climate change and ecological conservation. I also reflected on my own experiences of working around mental health, trauma and gender-based violence. Here are a few ideas I got:
1.Hope with Perspective:
Collective hope researchers emphasize that we need to understand if what we are hoping for and how we aim to reach it are genuinely possible. For example, hoping that COVID-19 will suddenly disappear tomorrow may not be very useful, especially if we do not have an actionable pathway to reach this. But hoping that the elderly people in my neighbourhood are able to manage right now is something that I can find pathways to make happen and act upon. And this will give me hope.
It’s important to remember that what we hope for doesn’t have to be something on a huge scale. And that if our acts of hope cater only to one or a few individuals (including ourselves) this doesn’t make them insignificant. We may be tempted to ask: What difference does this tiny thing really make, when it’s just a dot compared to the scale of the problem? But we aren’t just irrelevant dots: each of us is a whole being- with emotions, a story and complexity. Can you think of a time that someone helped you when you needed it? It could be as simple as lending you a phone charger, letting you borrow their laptop before an urgent deadline or sitting in silence with you when you were feeling low. Those acts look simple but they probably had a sizeable impact on you.
2. Be prepared to adapt:
With uncertainty of changing rules around the lockdown, different mobility from day to day and no clear idea of what’s going to happen next, the pathways we use to reach what we hoped for may need to change in response to a changing situation. There is no place that I have learnt this better than during my work at Kolkata Sanved. Earlier, Dance Movement Therapy sessions were facilitated completely through in-person interactions. But now, the organisation is actively working towards adapting to the new situation by using technology. It isn’t easy, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we are finding newer ways to move towards a goal: that individual from marginalised communities have access to psychosocial support for healing and empowerment.
3. Look at all aspects, not just the ones that seem most prominent:
We often tend to consider only one narrative about an issue. Elin Kelsey, a science communicator and educator, highlights that the dominant narrative of doom and gloom around the environment does not convey the whole picture. This is harmful because it discourages people from engaging in acts of hope as they believe nothing good can happen and no change is possible. Kelsey was part of a team that created #OceanOptimism, an initiative for sharing successful marine conservation initiatives that have taken place. So, we get a chance to look at different narratives on the issue: looking at the problem story helps us to understand it in more detail, and looking at efforts to create solutions gives us hope to continue with action. We do not have to choose ether one narrative or the other: rather, accepting that multiple narratives can coexist actually empowers us to understand the problem and to act for change.
An example of could this given around the migrant labourers crisis in India. It is an undeniable truth that this crisis has exposed the apathy of the system as a whole towards people whose labour forms one of the foundations of our economy. There are also several initiatives like Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), Aajeevika Bureau, Jan Sahas and many others working towards migrant workers’ welfare at this time. Looking at both these narratives helps us to engage with and understand the problem and to hope for healing. Looking at efforts towards justice can make us think: How are they tackling the problem? How is it going? What are the acts of hope I can engage in to support them?
4. Engage in collaborative acts of hope
This was suggested by a group of researchers who took part in a certificate programme on environmental sustainability. They found that learning and discussion as a group helped them to sustain hope, even when looking at issues which can probably never be solved, like climate change. By talking about these issues together, they felt like they were not alone in hoping and working for change.
This is something I’ve experienced for myself while doing a Masters in Development and working in the social sector: the sense that all of us are simultaneously trying to work for social justice, together, gives me infinite hope. You don’t have to work only in the social sector to experience this, though. You could start by joining discussions conducted by various initiatives on social media. One account you could definitely check out is Stories of Hope’s very own Instagram page (@storiesofhope.in), where we have conversations and interactions on hope, mental health and social change. Apart from this, a few of my favourites are: The Curio-city Collective (you can also check out their interview on our website), WeUnlearn and One Future Collective.
5. Focus some of your hopes on having a meaningful present
Most often, what we hope for is future-oriented. We may think: “I hope we feel happier in the future” or “I hope we heal” or “I hope the trees grown again after the cyclone”. And all these hopes are valid. The problem is that the unpredictability of the present moemnt, coupled with the systemic barriers in our way, make these things uncertain. Some palliative care practitioners have suggested that, in such times, when we are unsure of whether what we hope for will come to pass, we can re-orient ourselves by hoping for a meaningful present. This makes us more conscious of the moment we are in right now and makes us look differently at the way we act. Even if all our social change-oriented actions don’t work out as planned, if one of our hopes is to make the present meaningful, that at least this hope will be fulfilled. This can keep us going and help us to continue with acts of hope.
6. Self Care is Essential
We talk a lot about self-care on Stories of Hope for a reason. If we’re constantly working- whether as a part of caring for someone else or due to job-related pressure- we are extremely susceptible to burnout. This is why we need to take breaks regularly, accept what we are feeling, and tend to ourselves. Self-care may look different for each person. It could involve: going for therapy, making art, reading, meditating, dressing up, cooking, dancing, talking to friends, listening to music, watching TV, sleeping or anything else (If you are looking for ways to engage in self-care, you can check out the linked articles or browse through the ‘Individual‘ section of our website). The important thing is that it nourishes and gives you the energy to continue to act in ways that positively impact yourself and others. By sustaining us, acts of self-care become acts of hope.
Hoping we can all find the strength to engage in acts of hope!
Co-Founder, Editor and Author
I am a feminist, bookworm, occasional writer and perpetual learner. I work at Kolkata Sanved, an NGO that uses Dance Movement Therapy for healing and empowering marginalised communities, and I’m currently training to be a Dance Movement Therapy Practitioner.
Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Artist and Visual Storyteller
I am a feminist and an artist with a keen interest in mental health. I have always found peace and the power of expression, in art and music, since a very early age. Empathy is my mantra and goal for life. The rest of me is essentially my love for dogs, swimming and food!
Email me: email@example.com
(Header image Source: Google Images)