To Hope or Not to Hope?   Leave a comment

Mark’s beloved dog Arden, a lab mix, is sick with perhaps a terminal illness.  One option, says the vet, is to keep an eye on him and hope for the best.  Mark writes about himself and his friend Paul:

“Emily Dickinson says that hope, that thing with feathersThat perches in the soul, cannot be silenced; it never stops–at all–but because she is a great poet, in a little while she will say a completely contradictory thing.  She who felt a funeral in her brain, the underlying planks of sense giving way, most certainly understood depression and despair.  Perhaps even in her famous poem figuring hope as a bird, she hints at the possibility of hope’s absence, since if hope has feathers, it is most likely capable of flying away.

“Paul has a bracingly Slavic attitude toward hope.  His ancestors starved in the fields outside of Bratislava, between plagues and invasions, and their notion that hoping for a better future would have been a costly act of self-delusion seems practically written into his genes.  He would agree with Virgil, who says in his Georgics, “All things by nature are ready to get worse.”

“But this is ultimately something of a pose, a psychic costume for a sensibility no less vulnerable than my own.  He believes that low expectations about the future will protect him—whereas I, six years older and thus a child of the sixties, can’t stop myself from thinking, perhaps magically, that our expectations shape what’s to come.

Though it’s true that I, who am more likely to hope overtly, publicly, am also more likely to crash the harder when that hope is voided.” Mark Doty in Dog Years.

Stoicism and hope can each be coping mechanisms in the face of potential disappointment.  Conservative Christians tend to blame the stoics for having no faith before the disappointment and blame the hopeful for having no faith after the disappointment.  That seems unfortunate to me because I believe neither perspective is inherently godly or ungodly, that belief or unbelief can be just as certainly present in both views.  There are advantages and disadvantages to either outlook, differences in personality that can be embraced as each valuable in its own right.  Our American society has a strong commitment to happiness as a value, even a fundamental right… it is written into the preamble of our founding document as a nation, so optimists are consistently lauded in every niche of our society (except art, where it is often seen as disingenuous).

A January 17, 2005 Time article reports a revealing psychological study “In the late 1970s… most therapists took the Freudian view that depressed people–and by extension, pessimists–were out of touch with reality.  It made sense, since depression was considered an aberrant mental state…  In carefully designed  [seminal] experiments, psychologists Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson sat students in front of a panel featuring a green light and a button that they were told would activate the light when pressed.  In fact, the amount of control students had over the light varied from 0% to 100%, with many points in between.  When  they were asked how much control they thought they had over the light, the answers surprised the psychologists.  Optimistic types (who scored low on tests for depressive symptoms) consistently overestimated their influence.  By a lot.  On average they believed they had 60% control even in sessions in which their button pressing had purely random effects.  ‘The nondepressed had an illusion of control when in fact they had none,’ says Alloy.  By contrast, more pessimistic students (those who had more depressive symptoms) judged their performance more accurately.  The finding that depressive types were ‘sadder but wiser,’ as the researchers put it, rocked conventional thinking in psychology.”

The article goes on to explain that optimists showed a more accurate estimate of other folks than did pessimists (who thought others were more in control than they themselves were).  I expect that the presence of faith plays out in different ways in each personality type and is not simply present in the one and not the other.  Hope may come from many sources other than faith and may be a coping mechanism to stifle insecurities.  Stoicism, even pessimism (expecting negatives), may be the result of faith in openly acknowledging one’s insecurities (which takes a great deal of courage).  May we all find ways of appreciating and benefiting from one another’s differences.



Posted October 29, 2011 by janathangrace in Reading, thoughts

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