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  • Dan Connors

Reasons for hope

The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times

"Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." Desmond Tutu

"The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started." Norman Cousins

When is hope foolishly naïve, and when is it essential to keep us motivated and alive?

Just to get out of bed in the morning, we need some elements of hope that the day ahead might get us closer to our goals. Without hope, despair and depression take over, and life seems no longer worth living. Hope must be carefully managed, because unrealistic hopes will never be justified, while no matter how bleak things seem, there are always options and tiny seeds of hope.

In perhaps one of the best books ever written about hope and hopelessness, Victor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz, saw those around him without hope die quickly while those who were able to cling to some meaning in their lives survived. Frankl wrote about kindness, love, and meaning, and his ability to find meaning in the tragedies of the Holocaust inspires people even today.

I sometimes despair when I see evils in the world. How can you have hope in a world where greed, hate, and selfishness often prevail? Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, cautioned his despairing viewers to look for the helpers- those who came out of the woodwork to help in dark times- as a sign of hope for the future. In any situation where there is suffering, such as the Covid pandemic that descended on humanity, there are always heroes trying to do the right thing, trying to act out of kindness and love. They may not always prevail, but they are always there to give us all hope.

No matter what your political or religious persuasion these days, there is a hunger for hope that things can be better. Pandemics, climate change, racial animosity, and a rapidly changing economy are all reasons to worry and feel down on the future and humanity, but they are only half of the story. Jane Goodall has been a voice for hope and change for her entire life, and she anchors The Book of Hope- a series of interviews with her and journalist Douglas Abrams. Goodall is a scientist, animal-rights advocate, and known worldwide for her study of chimpanzees in Tanzania and advocacy for climate action, human rights, and youth empowerment.

Douglas Abrams also co-authored The Book of Joy, a fascinating series of interviews with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Abrams has authored 24 other books, and this book is a series of interviews he did with Jane Goodall both in person and on video.

Jane Goodall begins the story with details of her work in Tanzania, and how it took a long, long time for her to build up trust with the chimpanzees, none of whom had meaningfully interacted in the wild with a scientist before. She claims that for a long time her hope was challenged because without the chimpanzees, her research was doomed and she would have had to return home. Eventually she was accepted by them, and Goodall made history with her accounts of chimpanzee behavior and society.

I had heard of Goodall's work with the chimpanzees in 1960, but knew very little about what she's been up to the last 60 years. Her Jane Goodall institute is one of the premier conservation organizations in the world, with multiple branches in 26 different countries around the world. In Africa she has championed Chimpanzee and Gorilla sanctuaries and nature preserves, teaching the natives to live in harmony with the land and animals around them in a more sustainable fashion. (Many of these communities had become impoverished by destructive agricultural and wildlife practices.)

Even more important is the Roots and Shoots program, a remarkable youth conservation program that has spread to all 50 states and 60 countries. These programs not only give today's youth a productive way to care for the environment that will sustain them, it gives them important life skills to take with them. There are over 2,000 Roots and Shoots chapters, some of which are in poor and desolate countries, and they are spreading hope to a huge population that needs it.

In the book Goodall presents four reasons that she is hopeful for the future.

1- The Amazing Human Intellect. While she acknowledges that intelligent humans have caused much of the destruction in history, she also sees it as a force for good. Using hope, wisdom, and caring, she sees infinite possibilities for improvements in all of our challenges. Technology has come a long way, as has the speed at which ideas can be generated, tested, and put into practice. With the proper motivation and hope, we can still mobilize the best minds out there to solve the insoluble problems.

2- The Resilience of Nature. Goodall talks about the 9/11 Survivor Tree, a tiny pear tree that survived as the twin towers of New York fell on top of it. That tree still lives at ground zero and is an inspiration to all who visit. Over time, nature is more resilient than humans, and it can repair itself once we are long gone. After great forest fires, tiny seedlings always sprout upwards, and cockroaches can live through anything. Goodall is a dedicated environmentalist and she shares what's now called Eco-Grief, the depression and fear that accompanies mankind's foolish treatment of Mother Nature. But she also sees nature capable of bouncing back and tells inspiring stories of whales, wolves, and robins that came back from near-extinction.

3- The Power of Young People. There is much to hope for in the energy and intelligence of our young people. Goodall's experience with her Roots and Shoots programs tells impressive stories of young school children who are more socially and environmentally aware than their parents. She has been a role model for these children all over the world, and looks to teachers and parents to be beacons for the children in their care. Children are always watching adults for cues, and when adults are positive and hopeful, they respond in kind.

4- The Power of the Human Spirit. Humans have the ability to transcend their current negative predicaments. Using grit, imagination, and determination, we can lift ourselves out of many seemingly hopeless situations. There are many examples of those who lived through the darkest times and still found ways to hope. Churchill faced a Nazi-occupied Europe and was alone on an island nation to confront them. Martin Luther King was thrown into many jails, threatened and eventually killed for his beliefs, but he never lost hope that things could get better. She tells the touching story of two Chinese men, one blind and the other armless, who teamed up to plant 10,000 trees using each other's talents to make it happen.

The book ends with a plea for all of us to become messengers of hope. Hope has been shown to improve mental and physical health, as well as general happiness, and it is contagious (as is cynicism and hopelessness). The opposite of hope is despair- a dark, cynical belief that nothing will ever get better and there's no point to anything anymore. History teaches us otherwise. Mankind's standard of living and life expectancy has improved for centuries as technological innovations made out lives more livable. As for human rights, arc of history over the long term bends towards justice, as MLK famously said. That said, there are periods of turmoil and transition that can last for decades and cause many to lose hope. We may be in such a time right now.

It's hard to speak of hope without sounding simple and naïve these days. Mass media bombards us with depressing stories that promote fear and confusion, while alternative media bombards us with fake news and people to blame everything on. Conspiracy theories paint a dark picture of humanity with evil motives seemingly lurking everywhere. But living in fear makes it nearly impossible to open up to hope. That requires love, patience, and understanding- things sadly lacking these days.

We all need inspiration, and Jane Goodall is as good a place to start as anywhere. I also recommend excellent books by Holocaust survivors Victor Frankl and Edith Eger, who have seen mankind at its worst and bounced back. A little bit of cynicism is probably a good thing, but it must be balanced with a large dose of hopefulness to make getting out of bed in the morning worthwhile.

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