Nope to Hope?
The risks of a “Hopium” on our Physiology
with A Children’s Tale
Learning to dance the cosmic dance—this is why we are here on this earth, living the life we are living.
Today I write just after my daughter gave birth to a baby boy. All children are hope incarnate, so today is certainly a hope filled day in our lives. And yet I meet so many people who see Hope as either something negative, known to some as Hopium, or as something that alone can solve their problems without facing harsh realities that require them to turn hope into action – a hope disconnected from the reality that life is filled with suffering when we do not change and act. Because our grandson was just born I thought it appropriate to use a children’s story to drive home the way that life allows us to navigate between these twin errors. The book is called “NOPE!” by Drew Sheneman. I think you can figure out the plot without any words…
So there you have it – Hope in a nutshell. Of course leaving the nest is scary. Of course flying is dangerous. However this “crisis”, as the ancient Chinese put it so well, is opportunity – but only if you have a wise Mother Bird who knows what baby bird is actually capable of and sets baby up for success. That task of Mother Bird [being that I am a grandfather] is the task of us older guys and gals: to help the younger generation fly while helping them see and prepare for the dangers out there – whether they be wolves or cats – but ONLY when they are ready to fly. Before then, we keep them safe so they can trust us.
Hope is a cognitive process by which an individual can identify their personal goals and develop actionable steps to achieve results. It has the potential to positively impact people’s lives by building resilience, and can be meaningfully experienced at both the individual and group level. – reference 2
Let’s jump now from a child’s world to the adult world of illness and prognosis of death and how hope plays a key part in improving the quality of our lives and our abilities to make changes to give us a better chance of surviving possibly fatal events. I got reminded of this dimension of hope as i was taking a course on abuse and trauma. In the course they said that to help recover from trauma the path forward had to be manageable, understandable and meaningful. They emphasized that Hope is NOT a feeling – it is a physiological change in the brain tht reduces fear, anger, and helplessness and improves resilience. Here is an excerpt from a Wellness website that makes the case case that without hope when we are given a fatal prognosis we will just die – it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I believe that the idea of Hopium has the danger, if not handled gently, of encouraging such a self fulfilling doom . In today’s world what I am talking about are the Doomers who see any Hope for any positive future – even if it is after the collapse of our present world social-economic order – as impossible and delusional. On the contrary, life filled Hope accepts the pain and suffering that is part and parcel of all Life – but sees that, IF transformation occurs, new Life can be reborn. Our task then, with realistic Hope as our alley, is to help give birth to this new world as we let the old pass away.
“Has hope been confused with being Pollyanna-ish or naïve? Sure it has been, and it’s worth making some distinction. One wants to be sober while being hopeful. But as I hope I’ve made clear: hope isn’t about an outcome but rather, it is a state of mind, heart, body and being.
But it’s also very much worth recognizing that mind and perception create reality. When some people see no hope and others do, the psychology and physiology of those with hope has propelled wonders including revived health as above, even sustaining life itself.
This is not a fact that has penetrated medical science for whatever reason. How we hold something in our minds influences our body. When a doctor says when looking at a PET Scan that “I don’t like what I see. You have a 10% chance of living”, that is, in effect, a death sentence issued by someone who has taken an oath to “Do no harm”.
He or she has no ethical right at all to say this as it’s only a statistic, not the living reality of a unique human being. Medical students need to be educated about the role of the mind and stress in respect to bodily disease or inadvertently, causing more of it.
How many times have medical professionals reviewed statistics of people who are diagnosed with a rare illness and the doctor says the patient has a 10% chance of surviving. Other statistics show that when the patient embraces hope and a healthy state of mind, the rate of success is impressive. Not only has it happened that a patient survives, but goes on to thrive.
The examples of this are too numerous to count, as are the medical studies proving this out. Yet many of us remain hopeful that 21st century medical science will come to recognize as standard, the science that shows the effects of hope, gratitude and love on and in the human body, reversing illness and optimizing wellness is very real, and ignoring this can be fatal.
How does hope affect the brain?
Belief and expectation – the key elements of hope – can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins, mimicking the effects of morphine. In some cases, hope can also have important effects on fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation and motor function. (Quoted from Google, Apr 11, 2013)
Studies on the physiological benefits from the felt experience of gratitude and hope are extensive. I believe that these emerged from the logical and intuitive understanding of the relationship between mind, emotion and body as a single system and the human wish to understand, define and explain these systemic relationships scientifically. Ancient wisdom traditions, indigenous understanding across the planet for tens of thousands of years, speak of and understand these core principles.”
The dangers with the idea of “Hopium”
Now let’s give some background as to why I believe the topic of appropriate Hope is important as we seek a path forward from the suicidal path humanity is now on. I know, from experience as a teacher, that hope is absolutely essential to live in a way that turns mere existence into a life vibrating with expectancy and new possibility. I know, from personal painful experiences, that hope is what allows me to not give up. But these forms of hope are always grounded in current reality that allows me to see that current reality is always in flux and thus can change. My state of mind and what I choose are the change agent which allows new realities, within my limited powers, to unfold, but usually after some suffering. This is not hopium [a common term among doomers], but rather the fine line we humans walk as we navigate through the twin pitfalls of unrealistic optimism that is not tied to change and action AND its partner of seeing the cup ½ empty and considering all hope as delusional “hopium”. The term hopium is not clearly defined, but here is one website’s definition: “a portmanteau of the words “hope” and “opium” used to describe a fictional drug to help one stay hopeful in times when there is none.” I will take it to mean that “Hopium” is used when people with “Hope” are not strong enough to face “the harsh truth” of a situation so extreme that suffering or even death is a possibility.
What I consider as “Hope” is Constructive Hope that begins with reality and then opens new doors is what allows us to turn Traumatic events that could cause PTSD into Post Traumatic Growth. In both cases there is, sadly, pain, however, with Hope that pain can allow transformation and growth and a new life to unfold as we say good bye to the old. So while I see why the idea of “Hopium” is valid as a reaction against delusion, valid when seeing that “Hope” that is unable to face harsh truths is unhelpful, I also see dangers in this. The danger is that “Hopium” has the risk of seeing all forms of Hope as invalid and “unrealistic”. Thus, I avoid negative terms like this because we as humans so easily succumb to seeing only what is wrong and risk getting into a negative spiral of anger, depression isolation and eventually giving up. That is as unhelpful as naïve hope. Rather, we can be as hopeful as Mummy Bird as we let the old world pass away and work to help give birth to a new society that has learned to live in balance with Mother Earth and has social assumptions that see Limits as a positive thing.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Times of Crisis are simply times of transformation
Let’s examine “hope as change” another way. Most of the famous Greek myths we have come from a book called “Metamorphosis” by the Roman writer Ovid. It is a collection of mythological and legendary stories in which metamorphosis (transformation) plays some part, however minor. The stories are told in chronological order from the creation of the universe (the first metamorphosis, of chaos into order) to the death and deification of Julius Caesar (the culminating metamorphosis, again of chaos—that is, the Civil War—into order—that is, the Augustan Peace). In many of the stories, mythical characters are used to illustrate examples of obedience or disobedience toward the gods, and for their actions are either rewarded or punished by a final transformation into some animal, vegetable, or astronomical form. The importance of metamorphosis is more apparent than real, however; the essential theme of the poem is passion (pathos). [Wikipedia] Life, and especially times of crisis like ours, are time of Metamorphosis; are times when the old is passing away AND new life is being born. We are in a time of passion: that energy can be useful, if directed rightly, to overcome despair and doom. Here is a short version one of Ovid’s version of a Greek Myth. Is this about our current times? Of course, as all Myth is current!
The Myth of Perseus and Andromeda
Andromeda was born as the mortal daughter of King Cepheus of Ethiopia, and the vain and proud Queen Cassiopeia. When Andromeda grew up to be a strikingly beautiful young woman, her mother boasted to anyone who would listen about her daughter’s good looks. But when Cassiopeia dared to claim her daughter was even more beautiful than the Nereids (sea nymphs), the sea god Poseidon was so furious that he sent out a savage sea monster named Cetus to ravage the coastline and hunt down Cassiopeia. An oracle instructed King Cepheus that the only way to get rid of the cruel and tempestuous sea monster once and for all was to surrender his virgin daughter. So, the cruel Cepheus chained his naked daughter to a rock and left her there to die. Meanwhile, Perseus was travelling over the ocean after slaying Medusa with the winged sandals of Hermes (and the head of Medusa in a sack) when he spotted the beautiful young princess trapped and in great distress below him. Perseus was entranced by her beauty and he swiftly rescued her. Then he slayed the horrible sea monster once and for all, thus breaking Andromeda from the cursed fate her parents had bestowed upon her. As is so often the case, Andromeda fell in love with her rescuer, and before long she and Perseus got engaged. But there was just one small problem. Before her adventures with a sea monster, Andromeda’s parents had tried to get her to marry her horrible old uncle Phineus. Understandably, Phineas wasn’t too happy to find out his fiancé was planning a wedding with another man. Perseus tried to reason with Phineus, explaining how he had saved the princess from a life and death situation. But Phineas would not listen. Perseus was left with no other option – he used Medusa’s head to turn Phineus to stone. After their wedding, Perseus and Andromeda settled happily in Tiryns, and unusually for Greek myth, their marriage was happy and stable. Although the kingdom was small and undeveloped when they arrived, during their years as rulers Perseus and Andromeda transformed Tiryns into one of the most powerful cities in early Greek history.
For me this myth is a story of Hope, not a delusional Hope, but a Hope rife with danger and possibility. Our Medusa – our addiction to consumption, sociopathic individualism, and exponential growth of population and the economy – must be slain. The danger of seeing all Hope as Hopium, is that it does not allow for the opening of new doors, to new worlds to new perceptions, to new ways of being and risks, [I emphasize that this is NOT always the case] stopping us from working towards building a new world from the ashes of the old.
So, although many of us are like baby Bird and are saying “NOPE!” to the changes we must do to survive, with constructive Hope we can learn from the hard times ahead and eventually learn to fly.
References on the impact of Hope on our Physiology