10. Perceptions and Hope
If hope is a syndrome, a positive causal network comprised of multiple elements, it may be possible to grow into hope in different ways. In this and subsequent chapters, I will suggest ways that a person might move into hope. Adrienne Martin includes “modes of perception” alongside motivations, feelings, and thoughts in the syndrome of hope. I will begin by reflecting on the place of perceptions in hope.
The first thing to notice is that different persons, or the same person at different times, can perceive a single reality in different ways. A loud sound wakes up everyone in a motel; guests rush out of their rooms late at night. Someone excitedly says he heard a gunshot. The motel clerk calms everyone, returning them to their rooms: “The steam press in the factory across the street breaks a rod at least once a month. My brother works there, and he says management is just too cheap to buy a new press.”
Suppose someone in fifth grade exclaims, “It’s snowing!” The whole class looks out the window. What do they see? Some of them remember last week’s snowstorm, when school was canceled for two days. Perhaps one of them will say, with hope, “It’s really coming down!” Someone else, perhaps the teacher, who listened to the weather forecast on her drive to work, will say, “I don’t think so. Look. See how small the flakes are?”
Everybody is familiar with such examples. Different people, seeing or hearing the same thing, do not perceive it in the same way. Witnesses to a crime often give conflicting reports about what happened. We know our perceptions are influenced by our beliefs, moods, and expectations.
Consider the way we perceive something as common as morning shadows.
Long shadows stretch over the landscape at dawn and shorten as the morning progresses. For millennia people said, “The sun is rising.” That’s what it looks like. The sun climbs into the sky, and the morning shadows flee. But since Copernicus we know better. We still use words like “sunrise” and “sunset,” but we know the sun only appears to rise or fall; in reality the earth is turning.
Our perceptions are a way of construing the world. Two people see evening shadows lengthening; one construes/sees the sun going down, and the other sees the world turning beneath a stationary sun. Here’s the thing. We can learn to perceive in according to knowledge. With a little practice, we don’t see the sun “rising”; instead we see it standing still as the earth turns.
How does this apply to hope? In The Shawshank Redemption, most of the prisoners at Shawshank prison regarded escape as impossible. Andy Dufresne would readily admit that escape was unlikely, but he believed it possible. Since he believed escape was possible, he noticed—perceived—something the other prisoners didn’t see: the thick masonry walls of Shawshank prison could be tunneled. He noticed/perceived that his tunnel could reach the big sewer line and the sewer could serve as an escape route.
Adrienne Martin’s example of the cancer patients, Alan and Bess, demonstrates the importance of perception in a slightly different way. The doctors have told both patients the experimental drug has only a tiny chance of curing their cancer. Objectively speaking, each knows the drug will almost certainly not help. But they perceive the drug trial differently. Alan does not hope. Perhaps he joins the experiment thinking that at least this way his death can contribute to science. He perceives the drug as an experiment only. But for Bess, a one-in-ten-thousand chance is still a chance. It’s possible the drug will cure her. So she hopes. She perceives each injection as a lever wedging open the door to life.
One way to move into hope is to perceive the world the right way. Some philosophers will immediately object that the only “right” way to see the world is in accord with evidence and reason. We should never deceive ourselves into thinking our desired outcomes are more likely than they are. It is important to remember that Martin’s “incorporation” thesis has already accepted this point. Bess does not deceive herself that the drug has better odds. She accepts the unlikelihood of success. But she goes further than a probability judgment; she judges also that the hoped for outcome is practically important. So she licenses herself to perceive the drug hopefully.
It is rationally permissible and practically useful to train oneself to see features of the world in a hopeful way. Andy Dufresne sees massive walls as possible escape routes. Bess sees an experimental drug as a possible cure. By perceiving the world in these ways, they strengthen other parts of the homeostatic property cluster known as hope.
Hope works. My research friend at the Oregon Health Sciences University, Kent Thornburg, reports that hopeful patients do better, on average, than those without hope. C.R. Snyder hypothesized that psychotherapies based on very different theories of psychology all work (and there is evidence they do) because each therapy increases hope in patients.
My point is not that one can create hope or cure depression by some simple mental trick. I say again: a person’s perceptions are only a part of the syndrome of hope. Nevertheless, because the way we perceive the world is at least partly a matter of training—we can learn to perceive the earth as turning rather than the sun as rising—we have some degree of agential control over perception. We can learn to perceive the world in accord with hope.