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The Meaning of Hope Julia Thorley

Julia Thorley
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I’m struggling with the concept of hope at the moment. Is it an ideological con? My dictionary defines the verb ‘to hope’ as: to cherish a desire that something good will happen with some expectation of success or fulfilment. I might as well just cross my fingers.

We hear a lot about the value of mindfulness, of living in the moment and being present. Broadly speaking, this means neither dwelling on the past nor waiting for the future. It means being conscious of the here and now. Where’s the space for hope in this? Surely being motivated by hope takes us out of the present. How can I focus on what’s happening in front of me right now if I’m looking to the future, even – or perhaps especially – when I’m anticipating a better future?

American psychologist C R Snyder developed Hope Theory in which he said there are three components associated with hope: having goal-oriented thoughts; developing strategies to achieve goals; and being motivated to expend effort to achieve goals. An individual’s belief in their ability to realise these components determines the likelihood they will develop a sense of hope.

All well and good, but that still doesn’t persuade me that hope is the best way forward. Nor do I have any truck with the Panglossian philosophy that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Far from demonstrating optimism, this over-cheerful view is actually quite pessimistic. It implies that nothing can be improved, which means at best things will stay as they are and at worst they’re going to deteriorate.

Hope is the basis of many faiths, of course. I mean no disrespect, but the prospect of ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’ doesn’t fill me with optimism for this life. Some days, when there’s yet another environmental outrage or another political scandal, things seem pretty hopeless. I catch myself thinking, why bother? Nothing changes no matter what I do. We’re fighting a losing battle against apathy, ignorance and denial. Give up and all optimistic thoughts are likely to be replaced by negative thoughts. Then it’s a small step to sadness and depression. 

Online yoga teacher Adriene Mishler and others have described hope as a muscle. You have to keep using it or it goes flabby. Is that where I’m going wrong? It takes work to stay optimistic when you feel everything is getting worse. It’s easier to admit defeat; cynics would say that’s what ‘they’ want us to do.

Yet simply to surrender to the inevitable is unthinkable to those of us who are rebelling and campaigning for a better world. Perhaps I should start with hope and let it motivate me. Maybe without hope it’s impossible to imagine progress or change. Maybe it’s hope that will enable me to envisage what could be achieved if only I can keep going. Perhaps it could help me to set the achievable goals that will lead me towards the bigger wins.

OK, I’m coming round to the idea that hope might be important. Perhaps after all it can reduce feelings of impotence and helplessness, lower my stress levels and give me a reason to get out of bed. It could switch on the light at the end of the tunnel and help me regain control over the situations that make me despair.

I’m willing to concede, then, that hope isn’t pointless, but it isn’t enough on its own. You can say that you hope the government will do the right thing. You can hope that people will use their voice to speak out against injustice and immorality. You can hope that it’s not too late to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. 

However, hope alone won’t work. It’s not enough to hope for the best. By all means anchor yourself in hope; you can call it faith, or trust, or belief in humankind. Hope is a starting point, and it can fuel our rebellion and our fight for a better, more sustainable future for everyone.

But the bottom line is that we must also act.


Julia Thorley is a Kettering-based editor and writer, and author of several fiction and non-fiction books, and articles for a wide range of traditional and online publications. She is a supporter of the aims of Extinction Rebellion and an activist on many local issues.


Call to action: Next time you catch yourself saying “I hope X happens,” ask yourself what action you can take to work towards that goal, rather than just wishing on a star. And then read Rebecca Solnit’s, Hope in the Dark