On Staying Hopeful

954325Last week was tough. Not just because many of us were returning to work after a holiday break, but for anyone who works in social justice advocacy, the air is thick with fear, apprehension, lingering shock and disappointment. What will this new administration bring?  So far, the signs are ominous.

I was reading through news stories about refugees and asylum seekers the other day, trying to help my organization figure out how to combat some of the misinformation that’s been spreading like wildfire through cyberspace. It didn’t take long before I was depressed and discouraged. The distortions, the nastiness, the sheer vitriol I found targeted at some of the most unfortunate and vulnerable people in the world these days was beyond disheartening. It made me feel like there’s this huge dark cloud amassing and expanding over the country, threatening a deluge of hatred and anger and violence that could wipe out many of the fundamental values and assumptions we’d come to rely on.

What I’m describing, of course, is a sense of despair, and I see it all around me these days. Many of us seem to be moving through a haze, lamenting the times, and, especially during the holidays, drinking away our sorrows with like-minded friends and neighbors, as if we could put the disappointment of 2016 behind us.

It’s a mood that’s easy to slip into, but really, a luxury we cannot afford. Yes, the idea of Donald Trump as president and Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Rex Tillerson as secretary of state seemed so absurd and beyond our imagination just a few short months ago that it’s hard to know how to respond now. But merely indulging or consoling ourselves with the latest spikes in the stock market isn’t the way to go. There’s a lot each of us can do towards shoring up the values and principles and social compacts many of us still believe in, and while some of it may be painful and tedious and frustrating, it’s still worth the effort. Tempting as it may be, we can’t just check out now.

It can be helpful to remember that progress never happens in a steady upwards trajectory. There are always discouraging dips and setbacks and stumbles along the way. And real, lasting gains can require decades or longer to take root. Think of gay marriage, an idea barely considered 20 years ago, or the fact that 100 years ago women still weren’t trusted with the right to vote. Just 50 years before that, Africans could still be seized, shipped, sold and bought as slaves in this country. We’ve come a long way.

In her 2016 book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit likens social change to the emergence of mushrooms in a forest:

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

The ugly expressions of racism, sexism and xenophobia so easily found online these days can make it seem as if it’s impossible to change anyone’s mind, especially as people seem to just immerse themselves in opinions they already agree with, the ideas and beliefs bouncing around in their chosen echo chamber getting louder and uglier as they reverberate.

We do, however, operate in a larger culture, and political system, and slowly, over time, progress can and often does occur.

As Solnit puts it:

Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power…

Positive change is not inevitable, though. We’re seeing some pretty ugly mushrooms sprout right now. Hope is “not a substitute for action, only a basis for it,” Solnit reminds us. “Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act.”

That’s a sentiment I’ll be holding onto. None of us alone can change the current political climate, but we all can find ways to contribute to its change. Yes, we also have to take breaks, to turn off the news, appreciate silence and take care of ourselves. But this is not the time to retreat and accept the status quo. Those dark clouds will need a strong wind to disperse them.

No Expectations

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There’s a classic zen story that goes like this:

A young man approached a great master and asked to become his student. The student asked the master: “How long will it take me to become a master?”

“15 years,” replied the master.

“So long?” asked the young man, looking disappointed.

The master reconsidered. “Well, in your case, 20 years.”

The young man was alarmed. He persisted. “What if I devote every waking hour to learning this art?” he demanded.

“25 years,” replied the master.

“You’re talking nonsense,” the student said, angry now. “How can it be that if I work harder, it will take longer to achieve my goal?”

The master replied: “If you have one eye fixed on your destination, then you have only one eye left with which to find your way.”

I love this story, which I heard here from the Insight Meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer, because I think it encapsulates a dilemma many of us face. On the one hand, we want to achieve great things, and set high expectations for ourselves; on the other, all those expectations can become exhausting and ultimately, demoralizing.

There’s a whole success industrial complex of coaches and self-help gurus that tells us high expectations are important to increasing our chances of success. Studies show that children expected to do poorly at school generally do, for example, while those expected to excel are more likely to get A’s and please their teachers and parents. And some psychologists claim high expectations make us more likely to pursue challenges, which raises our sense of effectiveness and ultimately, our levels of happiness.

I understand that logic, but it also makes me uncomfortable. I can feel my heart start to race and my stomach tie into knots as I scramble to think of what more I should be trying to accomplish, what I haven’t done already, and whether I really can or even want to achieve these new heights I ought to be reaching for.

I think part of the problem is that many of these studies conflate self-confidence with high expectations. The two concepts are actually very different.

It’s one thing to feel confident that you can take on a challenge. It’s quite another to expect yourself to succeed at something particular before you’ve even tried it. That assumes an entire path to getting there, which may or may not turn out to be realistic, or the path you even want to take.

Expectations are a fixed destination determined at the beginning, on which we keep one eye at all times. This can distract us from the learning and flexibility we need to adapt to conditions, which will inevitably change along the way. Expectations are, by their very nature, set points identified early on based on external benchmarks held up as representations of “success.”

The word “expectation” itself derives from the Latin for “to look out for,” which suggests a looking outward for something that will happen to us, rather than inward for something we can do. In Italian, the verb “aspettare” can mean to expect, but it primarily means “to wait.” It’s a reminder that expectations are something we watch and wait for – not something we ourselves can make happen. So rather than motivating, expectations can be, by their very nature, dis-empowering. And if we keep striving to attain something that’s out of our control, we’re likely to end up feeling defeated.

Still, we need to have goals and a direction if we want to accomplish anything, including continuing to grow and learn and feel competent — all basic human needs. I prefer to think of these as aspirations rather than expectations. To aspire is to “direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving.” It’s more about setting a direction than about reaching a particular endpoint.

Interestingly, “aspire” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe.” Setting a direction allows us to let go of worrying about the outcome, and leaves us room to breathe, and fully experience the journey, along the way. Aspirations acknowledge the unpredictability of the journey, and the larger context we’re operating within. They don’t make demands that things go a particular way, they simply point us onward in a particular direction we’ve chosen. The final destination, or achievement, which will depend on circumstances as they arise.

This way of setting goals also turns out to be more consistent with scientific evidence about the kinds of goals that lead to true happiness. According to Self-Determination Theory, we’re intrinsically motivated to pursue goals that satisfy three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence. That is, we’re more likely to persist with our goals if we’ve chosen them ourselves, they connect us to others, and they give us an opportunity to demonstrate our competence or skill in some way.

Those who choose goals set by someone else and motivated by external rewards, on the other hand, such as wealth, image and status, are less likely to stick with them. They’re also likely to suffer a lot more striving to achieve them, since, as psychologists Kenneth Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found, motivation by external factors tends to distract people from their underlying psychological needs and encourage people to engage in pursuits they don’t inherently enjoy.

Achieving goals set by external expectations is also often self-defeating, because we’re less likely to be happy even if we achieve those goals. And repeatedly striving for something that we believe will make us happy but doesn’t can lead to what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” – the belief that there’s nothing we can do to improve our situation. That can lead to depression.

Of course, knowing what we value, making our own choices and being comfortable with them isn’t easy, especially when we’re bombarded with other people’s ideas of success and expectations for us. And that inevitably influences – especially when we’re younger – the expectations we set for ourselves.

It influences our expectations of others, and of the world around us, too. Yet we can’t control what other people – or governments, or companies, or institutions – do. We can only do our part, as best we know how: with positive intentions, awareness of our immediate impact and careful consideration of the potential long-term consequences of our actions. If we expect things to happen according to our desires and our timetable, we’re likely to get frustrated and give up. I see this in clients – and have felt it myself – over and over again. Instead, we need to set our course based on our current values, and pause to fully appreciate any progress we make along the way.

To condense this all into a handy reminder, I’ve broken it down this way:

To aspire is to:

Accept where/how/who you are
Set self-concordant goals
Practice being present
Intend your best self
Re-calibrate your goals along the way
Enjoy the ride.

Rebecca Solnit captures beautifully the spirit of this idea in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.

On “The Habits of Highly Cynical People”

1342548285858004Rebecca Solnit has a powerful essay in the May issue of Harper’s that gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism” — a pervasive cultural tendency to predict the worst, as if somehow that will protect us or make us seem smarter.

“We live in a time when the news media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past,” writes Solnit, and “use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures.” The problem with this mindset isn’t just that it’s not accurate, but that it “bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.”

I’ve noticed this attitude pervade so many conversations these days, as people assume political movements or other signs of collective interest and action will ultimately go nowhere, so that even if they believe in the goal, they feel no need to actually participate. It’s why so many people don’t even bother to vote. “They’re all the same, what’s the difference?” is a common refrain about political candidates. As if Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton were actually interchangeable.

This “naive cynicism,” Solnit notes, is “first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish.” But refusing to look at the details of one policy or another, or to acknowledge nuances in different positions or values, is really just refusing to engage with reality. Not because the details and differences don’t matter, but rather, because they’re complicated. And to acknowledge those complications and uncertainties makes people feel uncomfortable.

“Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards,” writes Solnit. “But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.”

I agree with Solnit’s message wholeheartedly, but I’m troubled by her tone. Solnit’s essay suggests a certain contempt for these “naive cynics” who declare activists’ efforts a failure long before their outcome is clear, or assume victory must be immediately visible to be worth acknowledging. But while their view may be simplistic, it’s also understandable.

I have a certain sympathy with cynicism, not of the kind Solnit’s talking about, but the historical kind, the cynicism that’s skeptical of powerful institutions and entrenched traditions, not of individuals’ ability to act virtuously and to effect change. To me, that’s “mindful cynicism.” But I can see how, particularly if you’ve tried participating in collective actions that don’t yield the outcome you’re after, one can unwittingly slide into a more profound cynicism about the possibility of change at all.

It’s a form of hopelessness, really, and it’s not just self-aggrandizement, but also fear that underlies that mindset. It’s a fear of hoping for something better that may not change within the foreseeable future; it’s the fear of looking foolish for trying to change something that often looks like it’s not going to budge. It’s a very natural inclination to look for solid ground to stand on, in a world that’s ever-changing, never standing still. It feels safer to predict the worst for the world, and to focus instead on self-improvement, or at least on making our own lives more comfortable. That may seem, at least, like something over which we’d have more control.

That kind of mindset is ultimately a recipe for misery. Our self-improvement is never good enough, and neither are our material comforts. Philosophers and then psychologists have long understood that human beings need to believe in and strive for something more meaningful — something that transcends ourselves. Naive cynicism – or hopelessness, which might be a more accurate word – discards the possibility of all that. It is profoundly depressing.

At the same time, to proclaim our dominant culture naively cynical, as Solnit does, is to buy into a similar mindset that assumes a static entity. Yes, we’re surrounded by forces that encourage a cynical mindset: simplistic and extremist punditry that boosts individuals’ careers, the pronouncement of disasters and exaggeration of fears that boosts audiences and ultimately ad revenue. But to some extent, even those institutions are on the decline: the proliferation of news sources saps the influence of television stations like CNN or Fox News that peddle cynical sensationalism; and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign suggests a groundswell of support for renewed engagement in civic life, especially by a new generation of voters.

I agree with Solnit that “what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.” That applies to the phenomenon of naive cynicism as well. It means not writing off those who feel hopeless, but engaging with them. Which requires first understanding their fear and discomfort, and then, rather than dismissing it, helping them see that a mindlessly defensive response does not serve them — or anyone else.