Reporting | Discipleship

Why Even Pessimists Can Embrace Hope

A social psychologist explains why fear and hope often work as a team.
Why Even Pessimists Can Embrace Hope
Image: Prixel Creative / Lightstock

Patty Bruininks, chair of the psychology department at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, has studied hope for years. The word is stretched on a banner across a bookcase in her office. It’s printed on a sign by her window. “Where there’s tea, there’s hope” proclaims a nearby mug. The more she studies hope—and explores what sets it apart from other “positive anticipatory states” like optimism—the more she discovers its complexity. Of the various human emotions, hope is distinct, a “funny beast,” Bruininks calls it, and a “very cognitive emotion.”

Bruininks is part of an interdisciplinary project funded by a grant by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities to study hope in the face of climate change. She also recently participated in the Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford program with a research project aiming to bridge earthly and spiritual hope. Drawing on N. T. Wright’s idea of “collaborative eschatology,” Bruininks examines the tension between the certainty of our hope in Christ and the uncertainty of how exactly God’s plan will unfold.

She spoke recently with CT about her research.

You write that “fear and hope do not appear to be two sides of a coin but rather can occur together.” Do you encounter other common misconceptions about hope?

Whenever I talk about my research, when I explain the differences between optimism, hopefulness, and hoping, people say, “Oh, yeah, I totally get that.” People get it because they use these words all the time. This is knowledge that everyone has that they just haven’t really thought about before.

You’ve written that “[the] experience of hope motivates us to stay engaged with the possibility of a future positive outcome, even if the likelihood of that outcome is uncertain or downright small.” What would you say are the most important practical applications of your research?

It’s helpful to understand that hope is an anticipatory emotion and so is fear. They’re more connected with possibility than probability. Knowing that all you need is a possibility, even if the probability looks really bad—that can be really helpful in maintaining that hope. It’s also difficult to prescribe hope. When should someone give up hoping? Sometimes there’s still a possibility, but maybe you should move on. That’s why I step back and say, “I just describe it; I don’t prescribe it.” Another thing I say is that “coping is managing your hopes.” We’re bombarded with so much negative stuff that we need to also pay attention to the positive things that are happening in the world.

What’s a good example?

I wrote for Spokane Faith & Values about the Dakota Access Pipeline. There was a group of veterans who joined the months-long protest in early December 2016. The guy in charge [Wes Clark Jr., organizer of Veterans Stand with Standing Rock] made this formal apology to the tribal leaders for all of the horrors that white people in the military had inflicted on Native Americans.

There was this element of surprise. I was hoping that the pipeline—and I didn’t feel very hopeful about it—would be stopped, but I didn’t know that I was supposed to hope that he was going to apologize. You feel like all of that past history can’t be dealt with. But here was a sincere attempt by someone—representing an institution that had done so much damage—asking for forgiveness. You almost need to take those moments and hold on to them tightly, because they might be few and far between.

I relate it to when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus to care for the body, and then the body wasn’t there. She didn’t even know that she should be hoping that he would be risen. She just was dealing with the aftermath. There’s the possibility that other factors will intervene and make things go well. And we can’t necessarily know what they are. From a Christian perspective, there can be divine intervention. The thing with the Dakota Pipeline story is that it just felt so divinely inspired. It wasn’t normal human behavior. It was exceptional human behavior.

How do you quantify or measure something as abstract as hope? How does social science give you a way to do that?

There are a number of different ways you can measure emotions. You can look at physiology that’s correlated with a particular experience of emotion. For some emotions, you can look at facial expression. Self-report, while limited, is considered by many to be the best way because people can tell you how they’re feeling. And that language has meaning.

My first question was, well, hope and optimism—are those just synonyms? Do we have those two different words for a reason? I asked people to define or even to describe hope as well as other states—like optimism, wish, want, and desire. We had them write about a time when they experienced each affective state. We also asked “appraisal” questions: How important was the outcome? How likely did you think it would happen? How much personal control did you have over it? And then we coded all of the responses.

What attracted you to this line of research?

When I started graduate school, I was interested in judgment and decision-making, and then I became interested in how emotions affect the way we make decisions. There was a fairly popular line of research cited a lot that was more goal-oriented. A lot of what we hope for we wouldn’t classify as goals, and a lot of things we hope for we have no control over. But that doesn’t mean we’re not hoping. [This research] got at part of hope—achievement-oriented hope—but it wasn’t quite broad enough. So that’s why I went back to the drawing board to do some definitional work.

Hope is a positive emotion, but it occurs in uncertain or negative situations. What we discovered is that you can parse that out linguistically. When you’re talking about being hopeful, that’s the good “I’m so hopeful for this; I think it can happen” response. And it’s fairly similar to optimism. Whereas the “I really hope this is going to happen” response—that’s hoping, so there’s little positive info out there, but you haven’t given up on it. And hoping is what correlates with fear and worry. Hopeful tends not to correlate. It doesn’t hold in every study. And then optimism negatively correlates with fear and worry, because you can’t be fearful and worried about something and be optimistic about that thing.

More recently, you’ve been working to bridge the gap between natural hope and spiritual hope. Drawing on N. T. Wright’s concept of collaborative eschatology, you point out that the certainty undergirding Christian hope doesn’t preclude the need for action. Can you say more about the significance of this idea?

Wright states that the eschaton is already happening. It started with the resurrection of Christ, because it was something not of this world—it defies the rules of nature—and it’s completely unexpected, like the Mary Magdalene story. Wright describes eschatology as not only the “second coming” but rather as the belief that “the future has already begun to come forward to meet us in the present.”

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis talks about friendship, affection, and eros. Then Lewis gets to charity and talks about God’s love. Human loves are good for the most part. We have them, because if we didn’t know what love was at all, how could we understand what God’s love is? But they’re lacking. So I was thinking—can I take that idea and apply it to hope? Can I look at how we hope and then at what hope is in the Bible? In the Bible, it’s hard to distinguish hope from faith because they’re both certain. When you talk about hope in Christ, it’s not “Well, you know, if Christ is real.” It’s a certainty. Whereas all natural hopes have this uncertain aspect to them. The question is: Do we continue to have hope after we’re in heaven?

And it’s collaborative because our labor is part of bringing this about.

Exactly. So it isn’t just “This is going to happen to us.” We are part of this whole story. We’re part of creation, we’re given the responsibility of creation, and so collaborative eschatology helps us to see that what we do really is important. By obeying God, by living up to your responsibilities, by caring for his creation, that’s going to transform you. It’s not futile.

And this connects with your project on climate change.

Our whole interest in this topic of hope in the face of climate change came from an article in Esquire about two years ago that interviewed people who are climatologists. How do they keep going when they’re finding out that it’s way worse than we thought it was? One piece of that question is environmental justice. As opposed to other social justice issues, like race or gender or class, saving the environment—that has an expiration date on it. It’s a very discouraging field to be in.

You teach courses on the psychology of consumerism, the psychology of poverty, and on love, altruism, and forgiveness. How does your work on hope connect with these others interests you have as a researcher and professor?

My interest in consumerism came out of my psychology of poverty class, where we talk about more than just material poverty. Can you have a lot of material wealth and a lot of spiritual wealth and a lot of social wealth? Can you be rich in all three of those areas? It seems to me that when you have so much material wealth, it diminishes your spiritual and social wealth because you don’t have to rely on them. You ignore them and don’t nurture them.

On the trips that I used to do for the class on poverty, altruism, and hope in Tanzania, you learn so much about America by being outside of it for three weeks. You see the beneficial ways in which these “poor, poor people” are living, and you realize the social and spiritual poverty in America and in your own life and how our culture doesn’t encourage that kind of wealth. I don’t want to diminish the problems of material poverty because that can also reduce hope.

Doing social psychology is like being able to rise above and take a bird’s eye view of the bigger social picture—the social forces and systemic injustices and how they affect individuals. Now that can be really discouraging. But that’s where the hope is. These courses go beyond the edge of what is and make you see that there are other possibilities.

Nicole Sheets is an associate professor of English at Whitworth University and the editor of How To Pack for Church Camp, an online anthology of nonfiction about summer camp. Her work has appeared in Image, Mid-American Review, Geez magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @heynicolesheets.

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