Potent hope dances with passive hope and spectatorism

Optimism and pessimism are kind of like spectator sports: things are getting better – or – things are getting worse. Passive hope is wishing or believing things will turn out ok. Potent hope, in contrast, is active, intentional, and grounded in the positive potential we can observe in people and the world. When we have potent hope, we don’t claim to know what will happen, but we do claim good reason to take action and find rich meaning in our lives. This post concludes with more than two dozen inspiring quotes about potent hope.

Dear friends,

Given the number of discouraging trends in the world, it is easy to feel hopeless and pessimistic. So I want to take a few moments to look at these very human feelings – optimism and pessimism, hope and hopelessness.

I’ll start with optimism and pessimism. It feels to me that both these attitudes pull us into spectatorism – like watching sports teams out on the field. Will the good forces or the bad ones win? Optimists say “Good will be the winner and things will turn out well.” Pessimists say “You’re crazy. Be real! Things are gonna turn out real bad, as usual!”

Well, first of all, we never really know ahead of time how things will turn out. And how they turn out has so much to do with what WE do: In a very real sense, we are always participants no matter what we do or don’t do. Even when we are bystanders or inactive we are never JUST spectators, and I think we’d be wise to cop to that fact.  Realizing we’re involved, willy nilly, may make it harder to buy into the righteous comfort of traditional optimism or pessimism, but it certainly brings us home to reality.

There’s another level of complexity in this. Let’s check out that old formula about how the optimist thinks “The glass is half full” and the pessimist thinks “The glass is half empty”. Does that actually capture our experience of most situations we find ourselves in – one glass with four ounces of liquid and four ounces of air? It seems to me that most situations involve a LOT of glasses – and they’re in every imaginable state of fullness and emptiness. Confronted by this, optimists get busy pointing out all the mostly full glasses while pessimists make a big deal of all the mostly empty ones. (The real test of course is what the optimists do with glasses that are really almost empty and what the pessimists do with glasses that are almost overflowing. Usually they just ignore them!)

It seems that optimism and pessimism have more to do with our mood than with reality. When I’m in a dark mood, I’m with the pessimists and I want to pull every optimist down. Cynicism helps a lot. When I’m in a bright mood, I want to lift every pessimist up: “Look at the bright side!” In both cases, as a (sort of) normal human being, I’m trying to recruit some company for my side of reality – or at least feel more righteous about my half of the truth.

But ultimately, when I’m being a bit more sane, it’s really clear to me that reality is more complex than that: We face an abundance of glasses with all kinds of levels of fullness and emptiness, some getting fuller and some getting emptier. So, although both optimists and pessimists are demonstrably right, the incompleteness of their rightness makes it hard for me to be a true believer in either view. That is where my own guiding principle in such matters – noted in previous posts – comes from. It seems totally obvious to me that things are getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster simultaneously. As absurd as it sounds, it seems kinda true.

So for those reasons – both the spectatorism and the half-truthiness – I’m not really a fan of either optimism or pessimism – even though I find myself indulging in them both many times each week.

That brings me to the subject of HOPE.

From what I can tell, most people think that hope is a kind of wishing that things will turn out ok: “I hope Pat likes me!” “I hope the brakes hold!” In some varieties of hope, there is also a bit of (optimistic) belief that things WILL turn out ok, usually expressed as “having” or “getting” hope: “I have a lot of hope in this new president. S/he gives me a lot of hope.”

Again, I find myself indulging in both of these forms of hope but, again, they feel passive, so I call them “passive hope”. When I lose them – when I become sad, disappointed, or disillusioned – that’s when the word “hopeless” feels real to me. But it, too, is passive.

In contrast, there seems to be a whole different kind of hope – a realm of hopefulness I call “potent hope”. Potent hope, too, has many forms but all of them are active, intentional, and grounded in the positive potential we can observe in people and the world. People with potent hope don’t claim to know what will happen, but they do claim good reason to take action, to move with the positive forces in and around them.

And what I’ve noticed is that when I find myself losing whatever form of potent hope I’ve had, I slide into passive hopelessness, because there is no potent form of hopelessness. But potent hope is addictive, so I usually soon find myself seeking another form of potent hope that is authentic for me in my new state and, with its help, I find myself rising to the occasion again.

Potent hope, rising from within us, is usually animated by energy and faith that come from sources like these:

  • commitment or confidence in ourselves (“We can do it!”),
  • caring (“Future generations matter so much to me!”),
  • passion and vision (“I just love life and our vision of what’s possible!”),
  • principled non-attachment (“The outcome matters less than the rightness of what we do!”),
  • seeing the perfection or potential in difficulties (“This crisis is an opportunity!”),
  • connecting to the power of predecessors (“Look at what’s been done before!”),
  • shifting to a higher, deeper, longer perspective (“There’s something bigger going on here that we’re part of…!”),
  • the intrinsic joy of doing (“I love what I do, no matter what happens!”),
  • simple choice (“I choose positivity because it gives me an exciting, meaningful life!”) or even
  • grit and determination (“I refuse to give up!”).

All these perspectives provide energy and inspiration that help us remain engaged even in the face of immense disasters or obstacles. It is this kind of hope – this potent active hope – that gives the world its best chances, that sustains life, and that often makes our own lives meaningful and rich as we find ourselves rising to the challenge of our journey over and over.

So I wish you and me potent hope in this holiday season and as the world turns us to engage the next wave of challenges and opportunities in 2014.

Blessings on this immense intense Journey we are all on together…


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Here are some insightful, inspiring quotes to remind us of the many varieties of Potent Hope…

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

“The road that is built in hope is more pleasant to the traveler than the road built in despair, even though they both lead to the same destination.”
― Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Fall of Atlantis

“To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
― Ellen Bass

“I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going. And I have trained myself to love it. Because it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight. And as we fly, we still may not know where we are going to. But the miracle is in the unfolding of the wings. You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.”
― C. JoyBell C.

“There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
― Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems, 1956-1968

“In a time of destruction, create something.”
― Maxine Hong Kingston

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
― Howard Zinn

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
― Thomas Merton

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”
― Henry David Thoreau

“It’s the possibility that keeps me going, not the guarantee.”
― Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook

“CHORONZON: I am a dire wolf, prey-stalking, lethal prowler.
MORPHEUS: I am a hunter, horse-mounted, wolf-stabbing.
CHORONZON: I am a horsefly, horse-stinging, hunter-throwing.
MORPHEUS: I am a spider, fly-consuming, eight legged.
CHORONZON: I am a snake, spider-devouring, posion-toothed.
MORPHEUS: I am an ox, snake-crushing, heavy-footed.
CHORONZON: I am an anthrax, butcher bacterium, warm-life destroying.
MORPHEUS: I am a world, space-floating, life-nurturing.
CHORONZON: I am a nova, all-exploding… planet-cremating.
MORPHEUS: I am the Universe — all things encompassing, all life embracing.
CHORONZON: I am Anti-Life, the Beast of Judgement. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds… of everything. Sss. And what willyou be then, Dreamlord?
MORPHEUS: I am hope.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

“Where there is no hope, it is incumbent on us to invent it.”
― Albert Camus

“Sometimes good things fall apart, so better things can fall together.”
― Jessica Howell

“Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.”
― Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

“Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.”
― David Orr

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
― Arundhati Roy, War Talk

“I choose to drown in hope. Rather than float into nothing.”
― Melina Marchetta, Finnikin of the Rock

“Those who make us believe that anything’s possible and fire our imagination over the long haul, are often the ones who have survived the bleakest of circumstances. The men and women who have every reason to despair, but don’t, may have the most to teach us, not only about how to hold true to our beliefs, but about how such a life can bring about seemingly impossible social change. ”
― Paul Rogat Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear

“I can’t help hoping, and keeping faith, and loving beauty. Quite frequently I am not so miserable as it would be wise to be.”
― T.H. White, Ghostly, Grim and Gruesome

“It all counts,’ Adam said again. ‘And the bottom line is, what defines you isn’t how many times you crash, but the number of times you get back on the bike. As long as it’s one more, you’re all good.”
― Sarah Dessen, Along for the Ride

“But you can build a future out of anything. A scrap, a flicker. The desire to go forward, slowly, one foot at a time. You can build an airy city out of ruins.”
― Lauren Oliver, Pandemonium

“Come friends, it’s not too late to seek a newer world.”
― Alfred Tennyson

“O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!”
― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”
― John Lennon

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
― T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph“

“My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones. Some succeeded, some failed, most had mixed results… but it is the effort that’s heroic, as I see it. Win or lose, I admire those who fight the good fight.”
― George R.R. Martin

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

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