As part of our theme, Crafting Hope, Emma Pavey reviews Hope in the Age of Anxiety, a guide to understanding and strengthening our most important virtue by Anthony Scioli and Henry B. Biller (2009 Oxford University Press).
Hope in the Age of Anxiety by Anthony Scioli and Henry B. Biller provides a thorough examination of hope’s origins, cultural influences, and strategies for its enhancement, while also tackling complex issues such as the connection between faith and hope, and mental health challenges.
Hope in the Age of Anxiety: a guide to understanding and strengthening our most important virtue is an ambitious book by Anthony Scioli and Henry B. Biller. Part survey of the field (the ‘roots’ of hope), and part self-help strategies (the ‘wings’ of hope), it takes a broad sweep, centring itself on the authors’ three “motivational vital signs” when it comes to hope: mastery, attachment and survival (39). Their essential argument is that,
[hope is] an essential element of our spiritual lifeblood…the best medicine for overcoming feelings of helplessness, alienation, and fear. Individuals who are hopeful reap more than a mental strategy for grasping at goals, solving problems, or managing crises. They achieve a different way of being in the world (4).
Scioli and Biller explore both hope within the individual and sources of hope that are external, navigating biological, sociological, cultural and psychological domains.
The first part of the book takes us on a lightning tour of the “biological, psychological and cultural origins and underpinnings” of hope, our “hope legacy” (5). So vast is its scope that epochs, thinkers, cultures, and disciplines are sometimes given just a short sentence. (The description of the emergence of hope at the evolutionary dawn of our species makes me wonder if despair emerged at the same time and what the evidence might be). These sections also include many short stories and quick narratives to illustrate the types of hope. Of particular interest to me was the list of metaphors for hope: as a protected area (‘I’m secure in my hope’), a bridge (‘Hope will carry you through’), a vital principle (‘Hope springs eternal…’), a skill or quality of character (‘Hope is the best possession’) and an end in itself (‘Keep hope alive’) (25).
Chapters 4 to 8 give a lot of space to discussion of culture, religion, faith and spirituality as they impact hope. Scioli and Biller note that in individualistic cultures, greater emphasis is placed on personal goals (mastery), while in collectivist cultures, attachment is more highly valued. They also present an interesting discussion of the relationship between our conception of time and our understanding of hope across different cultures. With regard to the Christian faith, they suggest that “Christian salvation is a fusion of two promises, escape from suffering and a connection with God” (70). The Christian faith, they suggest, “promises a new and better experience” (70, emphasis in original).
Chapter six on faith is intriguing. In the main, it takes a broad understanding of faith to mean more than religious faith. The authors argue that “Faith…underpins hope: it serves as an essential foundation and a critical ingredient in hope’s development” (94). In a later chapter they clarify that “faith arises from a satisfaction of the trust needs associated with the motives underlying hope”; in other words for mastery you need goal-oriented trust, for attachment, relational trust, and for survival, safety-based trust (140) and the satisfaction of these leads to faith. Since trust requires hope, it seems to me that this is an iterative or somehow hope-permeated definition: hope underpins the leap to trust, a satisfaction of trust is necessary for faith, and faith underpins hope development.
In other sections, they use faith to mean religious faith; that is, “higher power or the reality of a heaven or hell” (103). The authors argue that “we do not reject the possibility that some individuals may develop a positive spirituality that is free of religious influence, but some may find it difficult to develop a full experience of hope if they are strongly anti-religious” (107). And: “our view is that certain forms of spirituality can sometimes reflect an entrenched island of unresolved hurt instead of a transcendent bridge to a better tomorrow” (108). Of course, misshapen religious spirituality and abusive religious experience can also be harmful to one’s hope development.
In turning to chapters on spiritual growth and intelligence, Scioli and Biller again intend a very broad understanding of ‘spiritual’ and ‘faith’. They see the basis of faith as “one or more centers of value…primary points of reference that ground thoughts, feelings, and behaviors…In our opinion, it is this centrality that confers upon each of these faith sources a spiritual dimension, regardless of their ‘religious’ bearing” (127, emphasis in original). These sources then can include higher power, nature, social customs (eg Confucianism), economics, diversity & equality (eg political activism), science, the self (hero archetype), others (eg family, teammates) (127). It would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences in these domains and what ‘faith’ and ‘spirituality’ look like in each, since those terms, it seems to me, sit more comfortably in relation to some domains in the list than to others.
Part two of Scioli and Biller’s book is a wide-ranging and practical presentation of strategies for “drawing on the virtue of hope to unleash within you a greater sense of purpose, connectedness, and capacity for terror management and healing” (149). They explore ways to move from powerlessness, alienation and a sense of doom to develop mastery, attachment and survival hope in useful detail (though if you haven’t seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and plan to, avoid pages 177-8 in chapter ten). It’s not always clear to me when the reference to childhood, adolescent and adult stages of development are meant literally and when metaphorically to represent aspects of human development, but both understandings are helpful ways to think about the journey.
What is clear is the deliberateness needed to enhance one’s hope, starting from the smallest increment that is achievable, building survival skills, developing resilience to maintain an open stance towards others, and committing to a discipline to move toward mastery and purpose. Hope thus sometimes appears as a struggle or a fight and yet, paradoxically perhaps, “[h]ope lets you breathe a little [more easily]” (201).
In their chapter on fear, they note that the relationship between fear and hope is not one of substitution: hope by its very nature involves some fear. However, as they usefully put it, dealing with debilitating fear involves “transformation rather than exorcism” (225), which seems to me to be more generative than battle or fight metaphors. They address fear of death, interesting in the light of our recent research report, before moving on to discuss hopelessness in chapters that addresses suicide, depression, rage, and childhood depression.
From these difficult issues Scioli and Biller turn to hope, healing and wellness. They emphasize talking therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy that enable words to change our body: “Hopefulness is the best medicine because it represents an adaptive middle ground between the overactivated stress response and the disengaged giving-up complex…can help to impart a balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity…a hopeful attitude may allow an individual to sustain a healthy internal environment in the presence of enormous adversity” (325). I’d add that moving one’s body can of course also help to change one’s brain chemistry too. They note interesting research demonstrating mixed results on whether a ‘fighting spirit’ is helpful for recovery, which again suggests a transformative mindset is useful.
The authors determine that,
[h]opeful individuals are likely to retain an unwavering trust in a benign universe. They harbor an eternal perspective that dampens the impact of both minor hassles and major existential challenges…anchored by centers of value and a life mission that provides light and direction in times of darkness and chaos…supported internally by empowering and reassuring imprints as well as externally by a network of caring attachments. (325)
This seems like a good destination to seek and this book is a useful accompaniment on that journey.
- Hope implies a desire for change, a dissatisfaction with the status quo. So how does it sit in tension with contentment and its benefits/challenges?
- As you consider examples of hope in the Bible, which metaphors are used? Do they they express mastery, attachment or survival hope (or combinations of these)?
- Would you say that Christian salvation promises an escape from suffering? What is the connection between various images of salvation (healing, reconciliation, sacrifice) and hope?
- What is your experience of Christian faith practice and spirituality in relation to hope?
- Do you think of hope as a fight or struggle? A release? A transformation In other words, what kinds of language do you use to talk about it and what can this tell you about your conception of hope?