How to Hope:
In my last two essays I considered hope in regard to mundane things and extreme things. Mundane hopes are for things like new jobs, better relationships, and successful projects. Extreme hopes are for things like recovery from cancer via experimental drugs or escape from prison. Roughly speaking, mundane hopes are outcomes we desire that we judge to be probable, while extreme hopes are for improbable outcomes.
The particular question is how to hope. I suggested that in regard to mundane hopes, we find good advice in C.R. Snyder’s hope theory. If we can think up pathways to the outcomes we want and recognize that we are motivated to use those pathways, we have mundane hope. When it comes to extreme hopes, we should honestly admit that the outcomes we desire are unlikely, in some cases very unlikely. Nevertheless, following Adrienne Martin’s incorporation thesis, we may rightly judge that some very unlikely outcome is of great importance. Therefore, since it is possible and practically important, we “license” ourselves to hope for that outcome. Like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, we incorporate the hoped for outcome into our perceptions, thinking, and planning.
Now I want to move on to another sort of hope, beyond extreme hope. Jonathan Lear calls this sort of hope “radical hope.” Radical hope applies in cases wherein we can’t so much as imagine a good future. In cases of extreme hope, such as Bess the cancer patient or Andy the prisoner, we know what we’re hoping for; the difficulty arises because we know it to be unlikely. But in radical hope, we don’t have a clear idea of what a good outcome might be. Nevertheless, we hope for it.
Jonathan Lear provides us with an example to help understand this strange idea. In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Lear tells the story of Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow people. Plenty Coups (Alaxchiia Ahu, “Many Achievements”) lived from 1848 to 1932. During his lifetime the Crow people, along with every other Native American tribe of the plains, mountains, and western regions of the United States, were driven onto reservations. For many tribes, the assigned reservation land was far from their original territory. For the Crow, Plenty Coups achieved a peace with the invading whites that gave his people a reservation covering much of their traditional land.
When he was a boy, Plenty Coups had a vision, which he and the elders of his tribe understood as a message from the Great Spirit. In Plenty Coups’ vision, buffalo were replaced on the plains by strange buffalo-like creatures with spots and weird tails. Also, a great wind blew down all the trees of the forest except one, the tree of the chickadee. The elders of the tribe and Plenty Coups interpreted his dreams as predicting the coming of white men. Plenty Coups led the Crow as chief for decades, at various times allying the Crow with the whites against the Sioux and the Cheyenne, traditional enemies of the Crow.
One might interpret Plenty Coups as a master strategist, who foresaw the triumph of the Europeans and found a way to accommodate the inevitable. But Jonathan Lear argues that something more profound was going on. He quotes Plenty Coups, explaining the move onto the reservation:
When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.
“After this, nothing happened.” History did not stop, of course. Plenty Coups led his people for decades after the move onto the reservation. He invited mission schools to come to reservation land. He urged his people to learn farming and took great pride in his own garden. But to his interviewer (in the late 1920s) Plenty Coups said nothing about those things. Lear takes Plenty Coups’ evocative sentence to speak of cultural devastation. “Nothing happened”—in the sense that the traditional Crow way of live (centered around buffalo, open plains, intertribal warfare and the virtues of the warrior) ended.
What kind of hope can you have when you can see (perhaps you alone of all your people can see) that your whole way of life is going to be turned upside down?
Lear describes the Crow situation in terms that moral philosophers would use. Before the coming of Europeans, the Crow had a rich moral vocabulary in which loyalty, bravery, cunning, and defiance were important virtues. These virtues fit well into the traditional practices of Crow life: moving, making camp, hunting, warfare against other tribes, celebrations, etc. But the catastrophe that Plenty Coups foresaw overtaking the Crow—the great wind that blew down all the trees of the forest except one—would eliminate that way of life.
Here is a particular example. In their traditional way of life, a raid to steal horses from a competing tribe would be a praiseworthy accomplishment, a way for young men to try themselves and show their mettle. But after the move to the reservation, raiding became stealing, prohibited by law. A traditional practice that exhibited virtues of cunning and courage became a crime. In this and countless other ways, the moral universe of the Crow was obliterated. “After this, nothing happened.”
Radical hope, says Lear, is hope for a good future, even when your old concepts of a good future have disintegrated and you don’t yet know what will replace them. For Plenty Coups, radical hope gave him confidence that the Crow would come through the storm and still find ways to be Crow. They would not simply disappear or assimilate into white culture. The Crow could freely adopt this or that aspect of the strangers’ culture (schools, farms), but they would do so in a manner distinctive to their identity.
Plenty Coups was an extraordinary leader. He led his people through radical change with confidence in a good future, even though he did not know what that good future would be like. Plenty Coups’ hope was grounded in his visions and his belief in the Great Spirit. (Late in his life, Plenty Coups was baptized as a Christian, but this should not be interpreted as a loss of faith in the divine origin of his vision.) Lear admits this, but he argues that belief in the supernatural is not necessary for radical hope.
Lear interprets the Plenty Coups story in a way that makes it accessible for secular readers. The world has more goodness in it that we can ever know, Lear says. We are finite beings; we live a few decades at most. The goodness of the world is far beyond what we can comprehend. Therefore, he says, even a secular person who does not believe in supernatural help can still hope for good futures in any circumstance, even in a time of cultural devastation.
Lear has not directly answered the question how to have radical hope. That is a matter for further reflection, to which I will return in another essay.