As I write, it’s one day past the start of Spring, and we’re in the middle of a Nor’easter dumping six inches of snow so far on New York City. So it seems worth reminding ourselves of the old familiar saying of the English poet Alexander Pope, “hope springs eternal.” So, hopefully, will Spring–eventually.
Although Pope’s saying became a popular proverb, he wasn’t exactly giving hope a ringing endorsement. Here’s the rest of the poem the words come from:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
He’s suggesting we deceive ourselves when we hope, always looking for a better future that never seems to come. And he takes a swipe at the church while he’s at it, telling us we pacify our uneasiness with promises of heaven.
The great spiritual traditions themselves are divided on the subject. On the whole, hope fares a little better in the west: Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all forward-looking, expecting deliverance, restoration and a day of justice in the future. Hope is one of the three classic virtues of Christianity: “Faith, Hope and Charity.” And Dr. Martin Luther King held that “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Hope, from this perspective, is a spiritual vaccine that gives us the strength to keep moving forward when circumstances are against us.
But in the east, particularly in Buddhism, there’s sometimes a different emphasis. Listen to what the Venerable Phra Payutto says about it in his book, Buddhadhamma:
A hopeful person…has a concealed expectation or anticipation that is constantly present…the possibility of being disappointed or falling into despair…Hope thus comes paired with apprehension; if hope remains, fear remains.
He’s making the point that hope can contain the seeds of its opposite, a fear of failure or disappointment. Buddhist teachings often counsel us to stay focused on this present moment, on what’s real–the “power of now,” in the title of Eckhart Tolle’s popular book–rather than our fantasies of fear and hope. Get out of your own head-space and see what’s in front of you. Smell the roses. Maybe even less-pleasant things.
The two views don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, though. Being mindful of the present moment and holding hope for the future can combine to form a more powerful and transformative way of looking at our lives that either one alone.
So what exactly does hope do for us?
Shane Lopez is the author of Making Hope Happen, an account of his investigation of hope on health and how we make changes in our lives.
He found that the benefits of hope on the body, mind and nervous system are well- documented, and the evidence shows that hope may serve to shield us from the effects of stress and anxiety, including painful and catastrophic events. According to Lopez, studies with workers indicate that those who are more hopeful also experience greater well-being, and are more likely to practice healthy behaviors, including healthy eating, regular exercise, safe sex practices and eliminating harmful habits like smoking.
Lopez cites the work of Jerome Groopman, staff writer on medicine and biology for The New Yorker, a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and author of The Anatomy of Hope. Groopman writes about the power of hope, describing how researchers have discovered that when we alter our mind-set, it can alter our neurochemistry as well. He relates how two specific mental qualities, belief and expectation, are the “key elements of hope” and can protect our nervous systems by releasing neurotransmitters in the brain that inhibit fear and pain impulses.
So what, exactly, gives us hope?
In 2008, Duane Bidwell, associate professor of practical theology at Claremont School of Theology in California, and his colleague, Dr. Donald Batisky, a specialist in kidney research at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, began a study of hope among children with chronic illness.
They identified five primary “pathways to hope.” They are:
1. Maintaining Identity
Engaging in activities and relationships that reinforce a sense of self beyond our medical condition. We are not our illness, our shortcomings or our limitations; they are something we have, not something we are.
2. Realizing Community
Establishing connections that help us see we are not alone, even if we are dealing with illness–that there is life beyond it in which we can participate.
3. Claiming Power
Taking an active rather than a passive role in treatment–discussing our situation with our doctors, applying our own medications, and setting and keeping goals– helps us become more self-directed and hopeful. This is a model practiced for centuries in systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
4. Attending to Spirituality
Bidwell and Batisky emphasize contemplative practices, such as meditation and prayer, as particularly helpful in cultivating hope.
5. Developing Wisdom
This involves learning about healing through direct experience and finding ways to give back. Compassion and service heal us as well as those we serve.
Their work also suggests there is a relational component to hope. Interviews with children revealed that hope can be strengthened by our interactions with the people around us, especially those who play key roles in our lives, often in small, ordinary moments with family and friends.
Lopez, Bidwell and Groopman stress that hope is not denial, but rests upon a commitment to truth and reality. Hoping, says Bidwell, requires us to take an active stance in our own healing, whereas wishing is a passive state in which we merely wait for good things to happen.
This is where the power of now and the power of hope come together. As Groopman says, “True hope has no room for delusion.” If our hope if rooted in a clear-eyed facing of reality, we avoid the pitfall of wishful thinking and fear the Buddhists warn us about. This is what Groopman calls “an authentic biology of hope.”
But not only do we now know what hope is and what it can do for us; we even know where hope happens.
A recent study by psychologists in Chengdu, China pinpointed the probable location in the brain where neurochemical transactions connected to hope occur: the orbitofrontal cortex–the area related to motivation, problem-solving, and goal-orientation.
Interestingly, the orbitofrontal cortex lies just above the eyes and several centimeters within the front of the brain–close to the classic location of the “Third Eye” of the Yoga system of India. More and more evidence suggests that many of the ancient practices of meditation have a basis in the structures of the brain, body and nervous system.
This is the view taken by psychologist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.
Hanson focuses on how evolution hardwired our brains for “negativity bias”– that is, negative, painful experiences create stronger impressions on us than positive, pleasurable ones because, in the remote past, our ancestors who reacted quickest out of fear of real, physical dangers like a tiger in the brush were the ones who survived and passed their genes on to their descendants.
The problem is, we don’t need negativity bias the way our ancestors did, because they did the hard work of making the world safer for us. So now it’s something of a liability, causing reaction levels out of proportion to their causes, like massive road-rage because the guy ahead is slow in pulling out.
Luckily for us, we can create a “positivity bias.” The difference is, while nature has programmed us to respond automatically to the negative, we have to consciously train our brains to create “positive cascades.” This is where hope comes in. Hope, along with other “happiness traits” like kindness, patience, and empathy, soothes the nervous system. Hanson’s core message is itself hopeful: If you can change your brain, you can change your life.
Hope can also play in role in how we face death, by helping us feel our lives are worth living. Shane Lopez writes, “Research shows that hopelessness is a strong predictor of mortality, and those folks who said they felt hopeless were more than twice as likely to die during the study follow-up period than those who were more hopeful.”
I learned this lesson in a personal way in 1997, when my mom was in the hospital dying of cancer. Despite her condition, she expressed a powerful wish to spend her remaining days at home, surrounded by the things she knew and loved. Her social worker and I had set that up, but something happened before it could take place.
My mother’s personal physician was away for a few days, and another doctor was filling in. When I saw my mom shortly before her scheduled move back home, she was excited about the return. But when I came to the hospital the next day, her nurse told me she was very upset. She confided that when my mother had mentioned her plans for the move to him, the fill-in doctor had snapped, “Don’t you know you’re going to die?”
Despite all the evidence, she didn’t, until he threw that bucket of cold water on her. Unable to handle the information, she deteriorated much faster than before and died one day before we were set to move her home.
A hope that had been sustaining her was taken away. Without something to look forward to, she was unable to hold on. “Without vision, the people perish,” the prophet Isaiah said. And as the Buddha taught, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” When our visions of hope are destroyed, our world can be taken apart along with them.
But the evidence shows the opposite is equally true: a vision of hope grounded in what is real and possible can bring us peace, help us stand tough and keep us on course until a new birth springs forth in our soul. Look closely where the blanket of snow is thinning away: already there are new shoots pushing their heads toward the sun. Us too. Can’t you feel it? Hope springs eternal.