The Necessary Precariousness of Hope

It’s hard not to listen when the universe sends us its messages. When I hear on several occasions, “Where’s the hope in what you are saying?”, I can’t help but pay attention.

Here are a few recent examples: Last week on social media, several friends and I were exploring the intertwined history of constitutional rights and racism, when one person said, “I agree with what you are saying, but where is the hope?” The other day, a case conference facilitator suggested the same thing as my group gathered to hear notes from my colleague’s work: “Listen for the hope in this session.” And last week a patient said to me, “Your plants look so healthy; I kill all of mine.” When I responded to him about the way life and death seem so close together, something inside me felt like I missed something important. Later, I realized that I missed a chance to name his hope that I could help him become healthy, just like my plants. So, I am asking myself, where is the hope in my words, work, and actions; and what is hope, really?

In my work as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist helping to unpack the deeper issues beyond behavior change, and as a person in society working toward uprooting and exposing white supremacy, I get down in the dirt quite often. To me, coming face to face with truths is a liberating and hopeful practice, even though this practice often feels painful and disorienting. Exposing something we wish to hide from ourselves that perpetuates destructive (and deadly) patterns is a powerful endeavor, which often feels terrible. After all, there are often several reasons we keep these truths inaccessible, including that we may discover we’re implicated in our own trauma and painful experiences, as well as the trauma and pain of others. Most of us are hardly ever sure we can bear knowing this kind of truth.

Even when we come into direct contact with the pain of being human, there is still room for hope. But it feels important to me to distinguish hope from something more like an idealistic optimism. Author Rebecca Solnit describes this well: She says that optimism and despair are two sides of the same, predictive coin. They both imply an expectation that we know how things will turn out: They will either be all good or all bad, without any room for uncertainty. A desire to move toward optimism or despair is our desire to predict something, or a desire for certainty, which is right in line with self-criticism, self-negation, and self-aggrandizement. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes this in the context of the Freudian super-ego. "The super-ego is a supreme narcissist…[it] is a boring and vicious soliloquist with an audience of one.” This super-ego taps directly in to the polarity of despair and optimism in ways that might be experienced as a pressure-and-release valve of self-criticism and freedom: Optimism can lead to despair, and despair is then counteracted with optimism, both based on an ideal that the super-ego has decided, in its narcissistic and singular way, must be attainable and paradoxically can never be attainable. This pattern sustains the predictive ecosystem of despair and optimism and keeps people feeling stuck in their own pain and jouissance (a Lacanian term for "a pleasure than cannot be felt as such" - F. Castrillon).

Perhaps hope, then, is something much more conversational. Phillips writes, “Psychoanalysis sets itself the task of wanting to have a conversation with someone – call it the super-ego – who, because he knows what a conversation is, is definitely never going to have one.” This is the super-ego as a predictive and controlling part of us, unable to have a conversation with another part of us because it can predict exactly how it will go, as if saying, "so what's the point?" Philips suggests that psychoanalytic interpretation breaks away from the super-ego’s predictive, self-critical stance which is “an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma…” that repeats itself over and over in a boring and unchanging way. Psychoanalytic interpretations offer another option, as if a stairwell down many different paths to the unexpected, unimagined, and therefore new experiences that we crave as a way of finding freedom from this self-constructed prison of idealistic optimism and despair. 



What Philips describes about the predictive nature of our self-criticism seems to link well with Solnit’s description of hope: “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and unimaginable transpire quite regularly.” Can we have faith in hope itself– the truth that as much as we may feel desperate to predict the future based on the past, or based simply on our desire to feel certain about something, we cannot possibly know what will happen next? That our lives are built upon chances and how we respond to those chances? Perhaps, then, hope is in having faith in the unexpected, or as Octavia Butler writes through the character Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Sower, hope can be found in a seedling and the phrase, “the only lasting truth is change.”

So what makes this unpredictability so difficult to embrace? I suspect it has something to do with "hopefulness" being a rather vulnerable position to take. We can fling ourselves into the unknown more securely if we are optimistic and certain about what chances we will encounter, and would prefer to hide in our safe beds if we feel more despairing and certain about our chances being destined for disappointment. I think for most of us it feels extremely difficult to try to have faith in the unexpected, because we want to have some kind of predictability or reassurance, even if it means we will be gored by a bull in an elevator or witness an auto accident or discover that we have cancer. At least, we may tell ourselves, we can be prepared. We can feel reassured by our own pain at times, especially if it reminds us of a part of ourselves or our history. I think this is part of what makes it so difficult to let go of self-destructive tendencies even when we wish to be free of these self-constructed prisons: The pain reminds us of something, it structures us, it keeps us connected to who we are based on who we have been. Growing is a painful process because it means leaving something behind, and it can evoke a fear of falling apart or falling to pieces without having something, however destructive, to hold us together.

I am still exploring in my personal and clinical work how to hold on to hope without hope becoming usurped by certainty and predictability, which I fear could turn it into something more deterministic like optimism or despair. Often when I hear white friends speak of hope as it relates to the painful personal unpacking of white supremacy and its hooks inside white consciousness, I grow concerned they are stretching too far into the realm of idealistic optimism, a land in which everything is going to be okay and these painful reminders of racism are not so bad after all. I worry that this is the seduction of whiteness itself, to make us white folks believe that if we just have enough faith in the goodness of people then we can find our way through this. This stance can feel like a distraction from the urgency I feel is necessary around exposing racism and white supremacy. It is difficult for me to believe we can rest on an ideal of "the goodness of people" when black men are shot in their backyards; when prisons are overflowing in an era of "The New Jim Crow"; when undocumented people are being torn from their families; when indigenous people are struggling for land and water rights; and when white people are not being held accountable for our crimes. But then where do we find the hope if not in the goodness of people? Yes, I believe people are good and deserving of love. I also believe people can change. I have seen it many times in my therapy work: I admire my patients so much for their courage and hope. I also believe people have destructive parts, which can become dangerous when we live unexamined lives. There is often a dialectical tension between our hope and our self-destruction (Freud talks about the "death drive" and the libidinal drive toward life in each of us). Most of us have the capacity for thinking and feeling; destruction and creation; racism and anti-racism; love and hate; anger and joy. Hope, to me, is in the dialectical conversation between all these parts of ourselves, never eradicating one or the other, but finding strength in a dialogue between the vital and curious parts and the parts we feel are hell bent on destruction– with the aim of becoming able to bear being surprised by ourselves and other people without falling to pieces. 

Perhaps an element of hope, then, is a flow between parts rather than a prison constructed to keep some parts in and some parts out. It takes courage to tolerate a conscious free flow between seemingly disparate parts of ourselves. And maybe hope offers something more than courage. Maybe, hope offers a witness, so that the courage is evoked and held by the individual, and she is responsible for maintaining it, but not alone. In a conversation, there are always at least two; and, if the two are inside of you, there must be a witness to help the parts flow rather than continue to build walls. The witness can be a part of you; it can be your analyst or therapist; it can be your community; and in many cases, it will be all of these. And our individual work is to listen when the universe whispers, "Where's the hope in what you are saying?"



Adam Philips
Rebecca Solnit:
“The Faraway Nearby”, novel