Even when you know that prospects are grim, hope can help. It’s not just a feeling, but a way to step into the future
Melanie, a 47-year-old partner at a top civil engineering firm in Boston, could not accept the fact that she was staring at tacky art in a physician’s waiting room. Sitting there, her thoughts drifted back to her advisor in college, who cautioned her that it would not be easy to succeed in a male-dominated field. But she was a fighter and would not be deterred. Her drive had been easily identified by her supervisors, and she was continually rewarded with broader responsibilities. Indeed, her personal and professional lives were textbook descriptions of how to use ingenuity and grit to overcome grim obstacles. But this was different. This was her body betraying her. She could deal with the unexplained weight loss and the yellow tint that had altered the colour of her eyes. But then came the pain. Deep, boring, twisting pain. The agony catapulted her to seek medical attention and, within a week, the work-up was complete. Pancreatic cancer.
Inside her office, Dr Tamika was reviewing the PET scans and mulling over what to say to Melanie. After 20 years in practice, it seemed like having these conversations had gotten only harder. Surely someone as bright as Melanie had Googled pancreatic cancer and seen the adjectives (deadly, devastating) and the clichés (‘the tumour that gives oncology its reputation’) that go along with this particular malignancy. She had undoubtedly already uncovered the fact that long-term survival was achievable only in a relatively small percentage of cases. Dr Tamika wanted to provide hope. But, under these circumstances, wouldn’t it be less than totally truthful to talk about hope? Perhaps, Dr Tamika pondered, she should instead speak with Melanie about her goals for the time she had left, preparing her for the likely scenario that it would be only a matter of months. That felt more honest, but wouldn’t Melanie’s hope be crushed?
Dr Tamika’s thoughts capture what we call ‘the double-bind of hope’. Oncologists and other physicians who care for seriously ill patients such as Melanie often find themselves entangled by such a predicament. On the one hand, they worry that sharing the whole truth about a medical situation might destroy their patients’ hopes, leading to despair. But they also worry about the opposite strategy: that not accurately providing all relevant medical information or putting too rosy a spin on that information could lead patients down a path of false hope, denying them the time and space to emotionally prepare themselves and their families for whatever awaits.
Caught in this bind, physicians are tempted to throw up their hands and conclude that addressing hope isn’t their job. But this isn’t a tenable conclusion either. Ignoring people’s need for hope won’t make it go away.
This dilemma results from an overly narrow view – one commonly held in the medical world – that equates ‘hope’ with ‘cure’. If we buy into this equation, it means accepting that hope simply isn’t accessible for patients for whom cure isn’t possible, unless, of course, they deny the medical truth.
But these treacherous waters are navigable for physicians willing to follow a new body of research in psychology and accept a broader understanding of hope, one that allows the inclusion of difficult truths. And because unpleasant realities permeate our lives beyond the realm of illness, this new understanding may also pay dividends no matter what difficulties we’re facing.
Hope is not wishful thinking, optimism, or ‘the power of positive thinking’. There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic, of course. Research shows that optimism is associated with many beneficial outcomes. But that doesn’t mean it’s the same as hope. The Cambridge Dictionary defines optimism as ‘the feeling that in the future good things are more likely to happen than bad things’. The influential psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, who have built careers studying optimism, describe it as the tendency to believe that outcomes in life will generally be positive, favourable or desirable. In other words, optimists simply believe things will work out for the better. The future is bound to be good. For this reason, they’re often said to wear rose-coloured glasses or see the glass as half full – sometimes with cherry soda.
Hope isn’t the same as glass-half-full thinking, however. Hope is applicable even when the glass is only a third full or has nothing in it at all. That’s because true hope isn’t about living in a fantasy world; it’s about living in this one. For instance, it doesn’t deny suffering and pain.
The book Supersurvivors (2014) – co-authored by one of us, David BFeldman, with Lee Daniel Kravetz – profiles 16 trauma and tragedy survivors who went on to do things that made the world a better place. A through-line in their stories was something called ‘grounded hope’. Even though all of these survivors exemplified a hopeful, forward-looking spirit, they were also firmly grounded in the realities of their situations. When James Cameron, the only survivor of a 1930 lynch mob, established the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Anderson, Indiana, worked to desegregate housing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and ultimately founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum, he wasn’t under any illusion that the world was a wonderful place where things would easily work out fine. In contrast, he understood the staggering resistance he would face, but believed that his efforts might nonetheless help to build a better life for Black Americans. As he wrote in his autobiography A Time of Terror(1982): ‘With faith and a prayer over my lips forever, I was determined to keep my hands on the throttle and my eyes upon the rails.’
When people have hope, their goals are more likely to become reality
People who, like Cameron, fight for important causes aren’t necessarily doing so because they see the world through rose-coloured glasses. Likewise, the scientists who valiantly struggle to end the COVID-19 pandemic or the patients with cancer who choose to undergo treatments with painful side-effects know the road will be hard, but they push forward because they’ve found goals worth keeping their ‘hands on the throttle’ for. That’s the source of their hope.
Hope, at its heart, is a perception. Unlike most perceptions, however, this one has the possibility of creating reality. Most of the time, we think of reality as creating our perceptions. Look around you right now and notice the objects in your environment. They all exist in reality before you perceive them. But hope is a special kind of perception: it’s a perception of something that doesn’t yet exist. It’s a perception of what is possible. […]
Edited byPam Weintraub
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