Throughout the election and the inauguration last week the word “hope” took hold as a political platform for change and, as the economy and people’s jobs circle the drain, became a call to community, a call to something larger than ourselves. We began to internalize the meaning of the word. And isn’t that the power of words? Hope has become a motivator for service, for working hard, for innovating in the midst of challenge.
Those who like a good debate will argue with me and say, hey, maybe it’s fear that’s motivating us. After all, if someone threatens you in a dark alley at night, isn’t it fear that motivates you to run and survive? Maybe we’re afraid of losing what we have and so our fear is motivating us to do something. Sure. I agree that fear is also a powerful word. Looking back on the last eight years of the Bush administration I find that fear was a powerful motivator for policy decisions and economic spending. I am not saying it was the only motivator, but it was invoked as justification for much of what we, as American citizens, were asked to support with our hard earned dollars if not always our consciences. Most recently, we were asked to move quickly to endorse the bailout or it would get worse. There weren’t clear rules or agreement on how that money would be spent or repaid. We didn’t have time to sort it out because the experts feared the economic situation would worsen immensely without immediate action. Yes, fear is also a powerful motivator.
So, what then is the difference between the motivating effects of two powerful four-letter words: hope and fear? I would say it is sustainability. We know from medicine that fear creates a physical reaction in the human body with the production of adrenaline to help us fight or flee a fear inducing situation. Over time, however, if a body remains in an adrenaline producing state, there are significantly negative ramifications. High levels of constant adrenaline can wear and tear on the body and foster all sorts of unhappy diseases. It also drains emotional energy – ask anyone who has dealt with a cancer scare of someone close to them. Fear, over time, is destructive.
Hope, on the other hand, is constructive. I think of it as a creative catalyst, allowing me to imagine the possibilities of what could be, what can be. I am sure there are medical or psychological studies on the physical and emotional effects of hope or some proxy of hope – but unfortunately I am not aware of them. (Perhaps that in itself is a statement on our general preoccupation with the negative.) I do know from my own experiences that hope inspires action – to move ahead in the face of challenge; to DO something. It is hope in action that makes good stories and good movies like Defiance or Cinderella Man. We love stories where the underdog succeeds. Why? They renew our sense of what is possible, what can be different. They show us that hope is not futile and our actions motivated by hope can change the course of an event, our lives, or even history–that fear and negative circumstances do not have to prevail. Almost everyone I know has a favorite underdog story or movie and examples in their own lives of hope-changing moments.
I was traveling during inauguration day and as I stood in line to board the plane, I overheard someone ask who would want the job of President of the US. Really, would you? I can imagine the pressure would be intense in the best of times, but now? Who would want the job now? I tend to think that a person disposed to seeking change and betterment–maybe a community organizer type–if they were to want the job at all would want it at a time when things were at their worst. In moments when there is so much to fear and such room for failure, the opportunities for hope and positive change, for success, are the greatest. The type of person who would want the job can see a larger impact in such times–as can we in similar times in our own lives and hopefully, now in the life of our nation. With such possibility, HOPE is one four letter word we don’t have to fear.