Tom Atlee: Potent hope dances with passive hope and spectatorism

Collective Intelligence, Cultural Intelligence, Earth Intelligence, Peace Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Potent hope dances with passive hope and spectatorism

Optimism and pessimism are kind of like spectator sports: things are getting better – or – things are getting worse. Passive hope is wishing or believing things will turn out ok. Potent hope, in contrast, is active, intentional, and grounded in the positive potential we can observe in people and the world. When we have potent hope, we don’t claim to know what will happen, but we do claim good reason to take action and find rich meaning in our lives. This post concludes with more than two dozen inspiring quotes about potent hope.

Dear friends,

Given the number of discouraging trends in the world, it is easy to feel hopeless and pessimistic. So I want to take a few moments to look at these very human feelings – optimism and pessimism, hope and hopelessness.

I’ll start with optimism and pessimism. It feels to me that both these attitudes pull us into spectatorism – like watching sports teams out on the field. Will the good forces or the bad ones win? Optimists say “Good will be the winner and things will turn out well.” Pessimists say “You’re crazy. Be real! Things are gonna turn out real bad, as usual!”

Well, first of all, we never really know ahead of time how things will turn out. And how they turn out has so much to do with what WE do: In a very real sense, we are always participants no matter what we do or don’t do. Even when we are bystanders or inactive we are never JUST spectators, and I think we’d be wise to cop to that fact.  Realizing we’re involved, willy nilly, may make it harder to buy into the righteous comfort of traditional optimism or pessimism, but it certainly brings us home to reality.

There’s another level of complexity in this. Let’s check out that old formula about how the optimist thinks “The glass is half full” and the pessimist thinks “The glass is half empty”. Does that actually capture our experience of most situations we find ourselves in – one glass with four ounces of liquid and four ounces of air? It seems to me that most situations involve a LOT of glasses – and they’re in every imaginable state of fullness and emptiness. Confronted by this, optimists get busy pointing out all the mostly full glasses while pessimists make a big deal of all the mostly empty ones. (The real test of course is what the optimists do with glasses that are really almost empty and what the pessimists do with glasses that are almost overflowing. Usually they just ignore them!)

It seems that optimism and pessimism have more to do with our mood than with reality. When I’m in a dark mood, I’m with the pessimists and I want to pull every optimist down. Cynicism helps a lot. When I’m in a bright mood, I want to lift every pessimist up: “Look at the bright side!” In both cases, as a (sort of) normal human being, I’m trying to recruit some company for my side of reality – or at least feel more righteous about my half of the truth.

But ultimately, when I’m being a bit more sane, it’s really clear to me that reality is more complex than that: We face an abundance of glasses with all kinds of levels of fullness and emptiness, some getting fuller and some getting emptier. So, although both optimists and pessimists are demonstrably right, the incompleteness of their rightness makes it hard for me to be a true believer in either view. That is where my own guiding principle in such matters – noted in previous posts – comes from. It seems totally obvious to me that things are getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster simultaneously. As absurd as it sounds, it seems kinda true.

So for those reasons – both the spectatorism and the half-truthiness – I’m not really a fan of either optimism or pessimism – even though I find myself indulging in them both many times each week.

That brings me to the subject of HOPE.

From what I can tell, most people think that hope is a kind of wishing that things will turn out ok: “I hope Pat likes me!” “I hope the brakes hold!” In some varieties of hope, there is also a bit of (optimistic) belief that things WILL turn out ok, usually expressed as “having” or “getting” hope: “I have a lot of hope in this new president. S/he gives me a lot of hope.”

Again, I find myself indulging in both of these forms of hope but, again, they feel passive, so I call them “passive hope”. When I lose them – when I become sad, disappointed, or disillusioned – that’s when the word “hopeless” feels real to me. But it, too, is passive.

In contrast, there seems to be a whole different kind of hope – a realm of hopefulness I call “potent hope”. Potent hope, too, has many forms but all of them are active, intentional, and grounded in the positive potential we can observe in people and the world. People with potent hope don’t claim to know what will happen, but they do claim good reason to take action, to move with the positive forces in and around them.

And what I’ve noticed is that when I find myself losing whatever form of potent hope I’ve had, I slide into passive hopelessness, because there is no potent form of hopelessness. But potent hope is addictive, so I usually soon find myself seeking another form of potent hope that is authentic for me in my new state and, with its help, I find myself rising to the occasion again.

Potent hope, rising from within us, is usually animated by energy and faith that come from sources like these:

  • commitment or confidence in ourselves (“We can do it!”),
  • caring (“Future generations matter so much to me!”),
  • passion and vision (“I just love life and our vision of what’s possible!”),
  • principled non-attachment (“The outcome matters less than the rightness of what we do!”),
  • seeing the perfection or potential in difficulties (“This crisis is an opportunity!”),
  • connecting to the power of predecessors (“Look at what’s been done before!”),
  • shifting to a higher, deeper, longer perspective (“There’s something bigger going on here that we’re part of…!”),
  • the intrinsic joy of doing (“I love what I do, no matter what happens!”),
  • simple choice (“I choose positivity because it gives me an exciting, meaningful life!”) or even
  • grit and determination (“I refuse to give up!”).

All these perspectives provide energy and inspiration that help us remain engaged even in the face of immense disasters or obstacles. It is this kind of hope – this potent active hope – that gives the world its best chances, that sustains life, and that often makes our own lives meaningful and rich as we find ourselves rising to the challenge of our journey over and over.

So I wish you and me potent hope in this holiday season and as the world turns us to engage the next wave of challenges and opportunities in 2014.

Blessings on this immense intense Journey we are all on together…


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