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Enacting hope during COVID-19 pandemic

Times of great crisis often produce great despair. We cannot see beyond the uncertainty and confusion of the present. Many people are feeling this way while sitting at home waiting to find out if we are doing enough to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections. Many are wondering what will become of our jobs, our investments, the country, and the resilience of the most vulnerable members of our society to overcome this crisis. Gloria Marsay writes that active hope becomes the only way in which to respond so as to transform the challenges we face.

Scripture contains many examples of despair and crises. It is in these times of crisis that hope emerges. One example comes from Jeremiah 29:11: “I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.” This passage becomes an encouragement to awaken, instill and nurture hope, as one of the three theological virtues.

There has been much debate about whether hope is a useful strategy or not. Jeremy Weber (2018) claims that hope is not “a” strategy: it’s the only strategy. He says that “Hope as a strategy builds trust, inspires solutions to wicked problems, and helps us learn from our failures.”The premise that hope is more than just one element in a list of possible strategies to overcome crises overturns criticism that it can be vague, unrealistic, ethereal, illusive and intersubjective. Hope is not a passive search for a spiritual elixir, nor is it a denial of reality.

Our human compassion binds us one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

Nelson mandela

We also cannot say that hope is the opposite of despair. In fact, despair often becomes a catalyst for hope. In this sense, hope becomes more than mere sentiment. Hope becomes a vision that demands to be pursued by means of small actions that transform darkness into light.

Hope is an active process

Hope requires underlying theory but must also be put into action. Macy and Johnstone, in their book, Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy (2012), explain the difference between passive hope and active hope. Passive hope relies on external agencies to bring about what is desired, while active hope requires engaged participants who bring about what is hoped for.

Hope is a practice. Hope is something that we do, rather than something that we have.

This conceptis not new. Evidence-based research, both globally and in Africa, shows that hope is mandatory for a meaningful and successful life. Hope has been used to understand and ameliorate global crises in the past.

When people are hopeful, they tend to be able to overcome adversity more easily. The Oxford Handbook of Hope (2018) and Giving Account of Faith and Hope in Africa (2017) are two collections that explore the effects of active hope within global and African contexts.

Our own respected South African leaders have left us meaningful reflections about hope. Nelson Mandela said that “our human compassion binds us one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt to turn our common suffering into hope for the future”.

“I’m not an optimist; I am a prisoner of hope.”

desmond tutu

Desmond Tutu also reflected that “hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness” and “I’m not an optimist; I am a prisoner of hope.” Similarly, the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, also expressed that “I find hope in the darkest of day and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”

These quotations show that hope is an active process. This active process requires concrete actions. Macy and Johnstone explain that it is a three-step process. Firstly, it is necessary to have a clear view of reality. Secondly, it is necessary to identify what is hoped for in terms of direction and values that we would like to see expressed. The third step requires us to move in a chosen direction to bring that hope into being. Therefore, hope can be used as a strategy to improve the lives of people and communities within context.

Hope as a response to restore our common humanity

Using this three-step active process, we can define hope as follows:

  • It is an endeavour to reach common understanding and requires commitment
  • It is concerned with and about people
  • It is about possibilities and humankind’s unity in spite of diversity
  • It is a resounding “yes” to justice and equality for all, opportunity and prosperity for all people
  • It is investing in common humanity, repairing the world, healing all nations guided by a clear sense of unity

It is precisely this vision of hope that calls for discernment in the midst of challenges that threaten our well-being, and action taken to ameliorate the problem.

Scioli and Biller have written two books on hope: Hope in the Age of Anxiety (2009) and The Power of Hope (2010). They explain fundamental hope as a future-directed network, constructed from biological, psychological, and social resources. They postulate that hope, in its fullest sense, encompasses the four greatest needs of a human being, namely,

Attachment – trust in the knowledge of the experts, be open to accept their wisdom, and connect with others (social media allows us to do this while maintaining the mandatory physical distancing during this lockdown period).

Mastery – acknowledge the skills we have and the skills we need to acquire to be competent in pursuing our way forward (empowerment, ambition and ideals).

Survival – self-regulation to ensure that we do what we need to do and make necessary changes to our lifestyle to keep ourselves and others safe.

Spirituality – refers to faith and meaning. The spiritual task of life is to feed the hope that comes out of despair. Despair cements us in the present. Hope enables us to move forward, trusting in a tomorrow we cannot see at present because of past habits we find difficult to forget and let go of.

Becoming hope providers

St Augustine used a wonderful metaphor to explain the “action” part of hope. He says that Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger permits us to recognise our revulsion towards the way things are, while Courage allows us to act so that things do not remain as they are.

“I find hope in the darkest of day and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”

the dalai lama

In medicine and human services, we tend to refer to “health providers”. I propose that community leaders can become effective in developing active hope. We can call them “hope providers”.

This is the challenge for each of us during this time of uncertainty: To become hope providers and develop a hope-filled plan of action, so that our tomorrows will be bright. Let’s revisit and awaken the core values of ubuntu – humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.