Sometimes the night time can be bleak. That’s when old fears, new injuries and ongoing anxieties mingle and persist. Yet, as first light dawns, there is a stunning transformation. Within seconds, and even as I recall the night’s drama, it is replaced with the anticipation of a good day. Almost every morning I am amazed and grateful. Almost every day the transformation is the harbinger of the internal resources that help me realize those good days.
This seeming miracle, this feeling of hope, takes place with such regularity that I have to believe it is embedded in my psyche, a permanent part of my character. I have done nothing to cultivate or deserve the extraordinary bridge between darkness and light, between the worst and best in me. But I depend on it almost as much as I depend on food and water.
So I have been asking myself: What creates and nurtures this capacity to leap across the abyss, this ability to wait out the hard times with some sense of optimism? What is this feeling called hope?
To me, the most compelling description of hope comes from Erik Erikson, who finds its origins in the infant’s struggles to resolve the developmental conflict between Trust and Mistrust. Picture an infant, hungry, tired, cold—crying, thrashing, needing help that doesn’t come right away. It’s easy to imagine a kind of despair setting in. But then a parent arrives, lifts her, holds her, feeds and comforts her, not once but again and again. With time, the baby comes to trust that, although she is miserable, she won’t be in the future. The repetition eventually builds a “protective barrier against despair that can last a lifetime and is the basis for resilience,” optimism, and faith. (from Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Further Life)
In essence, the cycle of need and rescue teaches the baby to hope, which is not innate, but rather a learned response to fear. Once learned, it becomes a virtually automatic, unconscious expectation that good will follow bad. This is how I awaken each day.
Erikson makes such sense to me. With him, I suspect that, throughout our lives, there is something about our capacity for hopefulness that reflects these early lessons. At its core, the experience remains primitive, beyond words and what we think of as cognition. But hope is also updated, reformulated and revised as we move through our lives, growing into childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood—through childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood.
Let me illustrate. As toddlers, we become more autonomous and better able to make things happen. Psychologists call this a sense of agency. Just the other day, I watched my 10 month old granddaughter pull herself up to a standing position, let go of her supports, fall, stand, fall and stand. My god, I wish I was so tenacious in pursuit of an accomplishment. It seems clear that little Lucy regularly draws on the capacity for hope that she learned months earlier. Now, though, the quality of hope is no longer passive. It doesn’t depend entirely on an adult. It now reflects her growing autonomy, her own will to succeed, and her growing capacity to influence her autonomy. From this point forward, I believe, the quality of hope she experiences is inextricably connected to these other skills.
With each new developmental stage, our experience of hope is joined by new skills, new ways to see the world. As we enter adulthood, for example, we learn to actively participate in intimate relationships, to love. Let’s say that our solution to what Erikson calls the challenge of Intimacy vs. Isolation, is to be consistently generous towards our lover. Generosity actually makes us feel closer and brings our lover to us. Now our updated experience of hope comes with a strong dose of generosity. As we awaken in the morning after a fight with our partner, for instance, we almost immediately—and automatically—think about what we might do for her. This pleases her; she draws closer; and the link between hope and generosity grows stronger.
Now there is a fusion of our will to succeed (in resolving the fight), a belief that we can (because we are competent), with both generosity and hope. As we awaken, and in the twinkling of an eye, hope is immediately present—joined by these additional friendly capabilities. We may not yet have worked out a strategy for how they will work together but we are already optimistic that we will find a way.
These days, psychologists know that people don’t pass through these stages in an orderly way, one after another. Rather, we begin to resolve a conflict, like intimacy versus isolation, then fall back. Then we try again. With time and multiple efforts, we build a style of resolving those conflicts that is all our own, yet also profoundly influenced by the people and the general culture that surround us. Each resolution builds on and integrates aspects of the ones before and folds into the ones that follow.
Erikson’s model features eight stages and eight challenges. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll now skip to the last two. The seventh challenge emerges as adulthood moves towards old age. Here the struggle is between what he calls Generativity vs Stagnation. To successfully resolve this developmental crisis, we must build a capacity for the sustained care of others. In very old age, the challenge pits Integrity vs Despair. If we fail to resolve this struggle, we become indifferent and disdainful. If we succeed, we grow humble and attain a state of wisdom. I would place myself in the midst of these two crises.
What amazes me is that, at 75, hope is as present and visceral to me as it was at 15. For instance, I fear that my grandchildren will inhabit a world that is polluted and ravaged by storms. Yet, in the same moment, in the same breath, I hope that they will be well,
that they and their generation will find solutions that we can’t now see. What’s more, there is some vague notion that I can help. Even if I can’t see the exact solution, I might help them build a belief in their own efficacy. I hope so, and that almost means that I believe so. Let’s hope that this is more than just a way to comfort myself.
Here’s another example. I feel that the pain in my back and my arm and my wrist are only increasing, leading to moments of despair. But I also hope that I find ways to affirm and to take pleasure in my life anyway. I don’t call up the hope, like some ancient Greek God. I don’t wrestle with the despair. The hope emerges by itself, just as it did when I was young, now joined and refined by all the many ways that I have learned to manage myself, to draw on the support and love of my wife, my children, and my friends. I know how to distract myself, for example, by walking instead of running, by writing essays not professional papers, and by paying attention to the young people I mentor. As we think and laugh together, the relationships make me feel young and joyful, on one hand, and comfortable in my age—reflecting a wisdom that may be no more than the belief that my life will work out.
It seems to me that hope is as much a part of me as the skin on my face when the sun is shining brightly. It is a deep reservoir of good will. My trust in its benevolence may be as close as I come to religious faith.