A review of literature in the domain of psychology, published in 2010, reveals a disconcerting cleavage between the secular and theological understandings of the nature and construction of hope. What some researchers call hope is nothing more than wishing for a particular outcome. Such wishing that may easily lead to disappointment and ultimately to despair.
On the other hand, optimism, as defined by Scheier and Carver in their 1987 study, coheres much better with theological hope. They called it “generalized expectations that good things will happen.” As well, what they called ‘learned optimism’ is akin to learned hope (spe docta, in Latin) in the same sense that theological faith and theological love are learned, and not innate.
Charles Snyder’s often-cited theory of hope (1995, 2000, 2002) suggests that hope emanates from the individual’s connection with positive goals. This displacement of attention from a negative event may appear to be helpful for a time, but lasting hope requires faith of some description, if only in the human capacity to find meaning in tragic experience, as Viktor Frankl suggested in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)—meaning that is often slow and even painful to discover.
Similarly, focusing on what a person is doing well can produce momentary hopefulness, but it is unlikely to build resilience, which comes from the hard-earned discovery of hope as a positive force that is universally accessible, provided certain cognitive conditions are present.
In her book Transcending Loss (1997), Ashley Prend referred to such conditions, although making no explicit mention of hope. She rested her case on two key principles, namely a propensity that is imbedded in the human psyche for self-transcendence and a sort-of-homeostatic inclination toward integration. On this basis, she offered a clever formula: SOAR, the letters representing Spirituality, Outreach, Attitude and Reinvestment.
I tend to agree with most things that she wrote, but the acronym that she used sacrificed precision on the altar of catchy phrasing. While the image of soaring is compelling, it would be more helpful to think in terms of a different sequence or to think of the constituent elements as non-linear in relation to each other.
Transcendence could be described as a basic attitude. On this premise rests hope: I am not alone. I could never be alone. I do not even exist for myself alone. I exist because I am part of something larger than myself. Integration follows naturally because nothing exists separately. Disintegration is the antithesis of being. As a result, no part of me exists without being part of a whole that is greater than my fears and anxiety. Each part should function in harmony with not only the whole of me but also, at some level, with the entirety of my relationships. At a cosmic or spiritual level, nothing in me works well if it is not in rhythm with the common good.
One definition of spirituality precisely sees it as life that is transcendent, with or without reference to God. Upon this foundational conceptualization rests a series of life-giving attitudes, such as gratitude and optimism. Note that I make a distinction here between optimism as an attitude and hope as a theological virtue. Both, however, are based on memory and imagination.
Re-investment is a conscious option for life (Cf. Deuteronomy 30: “I have set before you life and death…Choose life.) It begins with recognizing an inherent longing for life, a recognition that is only possible once the shock of loss has passed. Re-investment is a decision to act on that desire.
The active ingredient of re-investment is outreach: My wellbeing depends on the restoration of relational integrity. I reach out, often to take the hand of those who are already reaching out to me. I hold that hand in silence while joy slowly begins to rise like the sun. The sun always rises, even on the coldest morning, even behind the darkest clouds.
Also see last month’s reflection on hope: http://cribandcross.org/on-hope/