Tia DeNora, Hope: the dream we carry (Palgrave MacMillan, 2021)
Emma Pavey reviews Hope: the dream we carry by Tia DeNora and finds many thoughtful starting points for developing thinking about crafting hope in faith communities. DeNora emphasizes hope as an active, creative, and socially situated endeavour, focusing on its role in various contexts and the complexities of its distribution. She explores how hope relates to dreaming, action and health, while also highlighting the significance of cultural and artistic elements in anchoring hope.
Having just reviewed a book on hope by a psychologist, it has been helpful to turn to one by a sociologist, Prof Tia DeNora, at the University of Exeter, one who engages particularly with music and end of life care. In Hope, DeNora emphasises the activism, the doing, of hope, not as a ‘helpless’ emotion or passive stance (though it can be fragile) but as a creative, practical activity, the enacting of a dream through “vigilant emotional orientation” and attentiveness to the ‘micro-movements’, the possibilities of the present that can open up ways into that hoped-for future (4). Building on Goethe (unfortunately not listed in the references), she notes how even mountains are always moving if we have patience and the right ways of seeing (110). As she writes in the introduction, “hope is action: to hope is to act and hope as action produces a content-rich, practical orientation to the future…It involves imagining and longing for a hypothetical, better reality and actively pursuing that reality” (5, emphasis in original).
In centring her analysis on the social and cultural contexts of hope, DeNora frequently and importantly notes its “social distribution”, its situatedness in sociocultural systems, and its inequalities (3,11), how and when hope is available (or not), and its complexities. She notes in particular how hope can be weaponised, in a sense, “encouraged deliberately to counter the idea that taking worldly action is worthwhile or effective” (10) or as a means of “enrolling individuals onto agendas that may, or may not be, in their interests” (65). DeNora critiques individualistic notions of hope that overlook “social, material and psychological” contexts (61);
she notes that an individualistic notion of hope also overlooks our relational nature and interconnectedness – my hope is not just mine, isolated and possessed, but is rather a “social project” (67).
Following a critical introduction to hope, DeNora explores the relationship between dreaming, hoping and action. She describes dreaming as “part of hope’s magical realism”, a liminal state between unconsciousness and alertness, and she notes the political influences on definitions of the “borderland between fantasy and reality” (21). In her final chapter, she clarifies: “I mean to suggest that dreaming is an empirical knowledge-producing activity, as an implicit ‘critique’ of the present, and as a way of producing knowledge that should not be considered esoteric…dreams…can actually contribute to what ‘happens’” (114).
DeNora helpfully unpacks the definition of ‘carry’, drawing out and developing several meanings of carry that tell us something about the meaning and implication of hope. To carry can mean to bring something with you, bearing a load and keeping it close, which implies something valuable. The social nature of hope is clear here:
[I]t seems to me, reflecting on DeNora’s unpacking of ‘carrying’, that when it’s too hard for people to cope with the optimism of hope (almost as if it’s a burden), others can carry it forward until it’s real enough for them to dare to grab hold.
Carry can also mean to project, as when one’s voice carries over a distance to encourage someone across a river, to use her example, “placing a hope…audibly in space” and also “symbolically, as when we bring meaningful materials conducive to a dream into a physical space, or…social/psychological space” (23). Another meaning of carry is to infect: ideas, practices, hopes can carry like a contagion (we may even get “carried away”) (23). It also makes me wonder what might inoculate us against hope. And finally, carry can mean realised, as with a motion in a meeting – knowing when and how a dream is realised is “a matter for negotiation” and here again sociopolitical context is key (24).
In her third chapter, DeNora explores the “tantalising and contentious” (62) connection between hope, health and wellbeing, looking at somatic resonances that “highlight the importance of psycho-cultural experience for physical and mental health” (51). She explores psychoneuroimmunology, “cultural immunogens” (52), the placebo effect and positive psychology. Once again, while describing the fascinating interactions, as a sociologist DeNora gives important weight to critical cultural considerations; for example, definition(s) of mental health and what counts as problems and treatments (54, 56), the context of mind/body interactions (58) and the “biomedical-economic agenda” (63). She also notes the risks – intentional or not – of assigning blame to people who develop illnesses, exploring where hope might more usefully mean adaptation rather than cure (60, 64).
I see particular resonance in DeNora’s section on cultural immunogens, which include “meaningful practices and engagement with meaningful and aesthetic materials”, for exploring the relationship between faith practice and hope.
As DeNora notes, “[t]he focus on expectation, faith, and hope as cultural immunogens is a focus on how and where habits of mind and cognitive patterns come from and how they are sustained” (58). I’d suggest also habits of gesture and movement. She continues: “It is a focus on how we develop and maintain our sense of certainty…in a stable and secure reality where we may, reasonably, expect certain things to happen and where it is reasonable also to hope for things to happen, or that things ‘just might’ happen…[H]oping can enhance a person’s sense of coherence” (58-9, emphasis added).
DeNora draws on her background in music to look deeply at the role of music and poetry in anchoring hope, providing “resources for transcendence, for moving beyond pre-set realities” (97). There are beautiful examples of collaborative musical improvisations that facilitate self-expression and hope. She describes the work of music therapist Wolfgang Schmid and how,
“turning to [an] improvised format allowed Marc [a man with access to a very particular range of expression and movement] to contribute, to help to shape the musical event, to gain a kind of musical validation or amplification of his signs of ‘being there’ and to be part of an expressive, creative ecology in which he could participate and help to furnish or co-create” (124).
This seems to me worth considering in the light of a theology of improvised collaboration with God, one that uses our different, particular modes of expression and movement to create something new, something beautiful.
Here DeNora’s describes how “[i]maginatively reworking the world, going into the dream, we return to a world that is not quite the same as the one we left…because we are not the same…our perceptual apparatus has been recharged…we have gained resourcefulness as well as motivation” (100). These ideas again provide interesting resources for considering the role of imagination in church worship and faith in developing hope.
DeNora’s final chapter outlines her concept of social hope – a contextual, creative activity: “Hope is something we produce” (105). Interestingly, this model, relational theologies and models of transformational change such as Theory U emphasize relationality, agency and responsibility, and openness to possibility. Thinking from a theological perspective, hope may be something we consider co-constructed and also, to some degree, a gift we receive, an emergent perspective sourced from outside as well as inside, as it were.
On the one hand, DeNora argues that, on its own, hope is unlikely to “fix a broken leg, cure cancer, address racism or global poverty” (106), and in fact, to believe that it can “inculcates passivity”, leading for example to a passive hope for a cure rather than action to make spaces accessible for people with a particular condition or illness (107). On the other hand, and a paradox of hope, is that “hoping, even impossible hoping, may contribute significantly to change, albeit to varying degrees” (107). Again we might consider how this view of hope, and of “[a]ction and imagination [as] mutually enhancing” (109) connects with our view of faith and the connection between prayer, faith and action. If, as DeNora argues, there is no dividing line between the present and the future, what insight could we draw in considering the ‘here and not yet’ realm of God and our part to play? How might this impact our understanding of dying and death (one of our recent research areas at SWF)?
I’m drawn again to the same question regarding the relationship between the virtues of contentment (and/or rest) and hope, the latter implying a dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Through DeNora’s lens, contentment – finding peace and joy in the current imperfect circumstances – creates a mindset of hope by “sensitis[ing] us to the present” (111), offering “an aesthetic (emotional, sensory) component of knowing” (112), predisposing us to see the glimmers of hope emerging, and leading us to action that fans these sparks into flame.
DeNora’s emphasis on hoping and dreaming as creative activities that give form to their content, is helpful in challenging a view of hoping as (merely) an emotion and dreaming as disconnected from reality. Situating these activities with a critical eye to context of power and systemic patterns reminds the reader that hope does not operate in a vacuum – a critical consideration of what counts as hope, health, reality and fantasy is crucial for a flourishing faith tradition and practice. As this review attests, there is a lot of resonance here and DeNora offers rich ways of thinking about ways to craft hope as a practice that will be of interest and use to theologians, faith communities and those who lead them.