Posted by: Dan | January 28, 2007

"Pathologies of Hope" or the Perversion of Hope by Positivity?

Barbara Ehrenreich has recently written an interesting editorial entitled “Pathologies of Hope” (cf. Harper's, Feb '07). It begins in this way:

I hate hope. It was hammered into me constantly a few years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer: Think positively! Don't lose hope! … Hope? What about a cure? At antiwar and labor rallies over the years I have dutifully joined Jesse Jackson in chanting “Keep hope alive!”—all the while crossing my fingers and thinking, “Fuck hope. Keep us alive.”

Ehrenreich then devotes the rest of the article to describing, and thoroughly rejecting, the popular American “Cult of Positivity” which is rooted in the marketing of “the power of positive thinking,” “optimisim,” and “positive psychology.” The major problem with this Cult is, according to Ehrenreich, the way in which Positivity requires faith. She writes:

It's not enough to manifest positivity through a visibly positive attitude; you must establish it as one of the very structures of your mind, whether or not it is justified by the actual circumstances.

This then results in the irrationality of “positive illusions,” for this sort of faith is rooted in a denial of that which is actual. Furthermore, Ehrenreich argues that this has ethical consequences because “the ubiquitous moral injunction to think positively may place an additional burden on the already sick or otherwise aggrieved.” This results in “victim-blaming at its cruelest” and produces a culture that is “less and less tolerant of people having a bad day or a bad year” (this is a quote that Ehrenreich takes from Barbara Held).

Therefore, following in the footsteps of Camus, Ehrenreich argues that we must be realistic, but not passive or unhappy. Rather, she concludes:

To be hope-free is to acknowledge the lion in the tall grass, the tumor in the CAT scan, and to plan one's moves accordingly.

Like Ehrenreich, I have been inspired by Camus' writings. It is the compassionate atheism of Camus, and not the vitriolic atheism of Richard Dawkins, that I find both coherent and inspiring. Therefore, as I reflect upon this article, let me begin by saying that I whole-heartedly agree with Ehrenreich's critique of the “Cult of Positivity” that exists in America. This “Cult” is premised upon a denial of reality that is, indeed, pathological, and this pathology does genuinely result in “victim-blaming” and what Ehrenreich calls an “empathy deficit.” Thus, Ehrenreich's desire to continue to be active while also acknowledging “the lion in the tall grass” is quite commendable.

However, IMHO, the fundamental flaw in Ehrenreich's article is the way in which she equates “hope” with “positivity.” It is interesting to note that the language of “hope” is rarely employed in the body of this article, and, of the ten references to “hope,” all but two appear in the first and last paragraphs. Ehrenreich simply equates “hope” with “positivity” (the language of “positivity” and “negativity” is employed fifty-five times in the article). Yet Christians can never equate hope with the sort of positivity that is founded upon the denial of very real, and often very terrible, circumstances. Rather, as both Jurgen Moltmann (cf. Theology of Hope) and Jacques Ellul (cf. Hope in Time of Abandonment) have shown, hope can only be genuine when it is rooted honestly and unflinchingly in the darkest places of our world. Indeed, I suspect that Ehrenreich would have a very different perspective on “hope” if she began to read the writings of those like Moltmann and Ellul who stand within long-lasting traditions of suffering and hope, rather than simply allowing hope to be defined by “positive psychologists,” motivational speakers, and self-help gurus. The “Cult of Positivity” is a perversion of hope — and its pathological consequences have nothing at all to do with hope.

Here it is helpful to pick up on the connection Ehrenreich makes with Camus and the notion of living honestly. As we (in the company of Camus) try to honestly examine the situation that we are in, it is helpful to re-examining the theological motif of “hell.” Many theologians have argued that “hell” is not a place of eternal torture; rather hell is the experience of godforsakenness — hell is where God is not. Thus, Camus' “refusal to hope,” is an appropriate expression of his view of the world as godless. Following in the footsteps of Dante, Camus urges us to abandon hope if we are to truly enter into our world. Consequently, the problem with the Cult of Positivity, is that it tries to deny the godlessness of our world — it wants us to call our hells, “heavens.” But our hells are not heavens and so, if we are honest, we are bound to pick Camus over the positive psychologists.

However, what I find inspiring about Moltmann and Ellul is that they, like Camus, do not deny the very real hells of our world. Based upon their faith — in a lord who died as one forsaken by God — they argue that, even in the midst of hell, God is to be found in solidarity with the godforsaken. This then becomes the foundation of a hope that does not flee from reality, but acknowledges “the lion in the tall grass.” Perhaps there is more than the lion hidden there. This hope is not a placebo that removes suffering; rather it is that which sustains us in the midst of suffering.

Thus, it is the affirmation of this sort of hope that has lead me into deeper and deeper levels of empathy with those whose sufferings are ignored by others. While the Cult of Positivity does indeed result in an “empathy deficit,” genuine hope leads us into ever deeper solidarity with those who live in the hells of our world. In response to the Cult of Positivity, hope says “Fuck Positivity. Keep us alive.”

In my journey with homeless youth, drug addicts, and sexually exploited people, I have often encountered the lion — but I have also encountered something that is greater than the lion. The discovery of god in the heart of godless places puts a whole different face on hope.

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