Hope: Where Does It Come From?

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Original Air Date: 
April 20, 2019

Is hope something we’re innately born with, or something we can choose to have? We talk with people who tell us where they think hope lives in ourselves and our communities.

Budding hope

Hope can seem saccharine. Bland. Trite. But talking about hope with Andre Willis, a philosopher of religion, might make you realize you're not thinking big enough when you think about what hope means.

bright brain

How neuroscientist Tali Sharot accidentally stumbled on what’s known as “the optimism bias” — our hard-wired belief that our future will be better than our past or present.

Sonic Sidebar

Claire Peaslee is a naturalist who lives in Point Reyes, California, a place decimated by recent forest fires that sits literally on top of the San Andreas Fault. Yet she finds hope there through pilgrimage.

Steven Pinker
Dangerous Ideas

Steven Pinker presents a Dangerous Idea: things today are actually better than they've ever been.

Man along an unnamed road in Obafemi Owode, Nigeria.

Chigozie Obioma grew up in Nigeria — he’s a novelist and teaches at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. He says that despite rampant corruption, poverty, and an HIV/AIDS crisis, Nigerians are definitely more optimistic than most. He explains why.

Alice Walker

Hope is a complicated, even slippery, word. One that demands a poet’s voice. Here’s Alice Walker, reading her poem “Hope is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear.”


Show Details 📻
April 20, 2019
January 18, 2020
January 23, 2021
January 29, 2022
March 04, 2023
April 20, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. When you look around the world right now, how hopeful do you feel?

Andre Willis (00:16):

When I first got a job, it was teaching at Yale Divinity School, and that required doing some travel to do research and also talks.

Anne Strainchamps (00:27):

This is Andrei Willis. He's a Philosopher of Religion at Brown University.

Andre Willis (00:34):

What I began to see was suffering and despair, were much more noticeable than they had been. I lost my job. What happens? I was [inaudible 00:00:48] unfortunately. I felt like the U.S. and even globally, when I did some foreign travel, had levels of suffering and psychic challenges that felt like they needed real help.

Speaker 14 (01:06):

Living help, everybody deserves a second chance, sometimes three, four or five second chances. It's not easy.

Andre Willis (01:16):

Homeless people in San Francisco and LA, finding people under tents in the bike trails in Austin, New York panhandlers.

Speaker 15 (01:27):

I have holes in my tent, but I'm not worried about that, God has me. He supplied a way for me to wash some of my clothes, what I really needed, to get wet and dry. He gave me time enough.

Andre Willis (01:41):

Here I am in need, vulnerably asking you to donate some change to me, but I recognize that it was not going to do much for me.

Speaker 17 (01:53):

There's social worker, the system doesn't bother. There's too many of us out here.

Andre Willis (02:00):

At the same time, there's a real push to dumb down hope. I want to talk to you today about staying full of hope. Advertisements, popular sermons, figures like Joel Osteen.

Joel Osteen (02:17):

But you need to hear these words, the tide is coming back.

Andre Willis (02:22):

Even Oprah features this book, The Secret on her program.

Speaker 20 (02:27):

You are responsible for your life.

Andre Willis (02:31):

This American idea that if I just believe it.

Speaker 20 (02:36):

If you're sitting around waiting on somebody to save you.

Andre Willis (02:40):

If hoped for it enough.

Speaker 20 (02:41):

To fix you to even help you.

Andre Willis (02:44):

I can shape my destiny. I can attain it.

Speaker 20 (02:47):

You are wasting your time.

Andre Willis (02:52):

I reject that approach to hope. I say, we think about it differently. Hope means the ability to still be here fighting. [crosstalk 00:03:06].

Speaker 21 (03:07):

Hope, optimism, happiness,

Speaker 22 (03:09):

Hope is essential.

Speaker 30 (03:10):

Hope rises, she always does.

Anne Strainchamps (03:16):

Welcome to Hope, a three-part series from To The Best Of Our Knowledge episode one, where does it come from? How does hope rise? In dark times and uncertain futures, what sparks hope?

Speaker 23 (03:35):

Hope is connected to faith.

Speaker 24 (03:37):

Of what use is love if the situation is hopeless.

Speaker 25 (03:40):

Let's do hope.

Anne Strainchamps (03:43):

So, this is maybe an odd way to begin, but when our producers said they wanted to do a series on hope, I thought, "Seriously, three hours on a topic that sounds like a hallmark card." My hope just felt so bland, trite, dumb. But then I talked with Andre Willis, the Philosopher of Religion, and he agreed.

Andre Willis (04:08):

I think that is the case. People are getting sick and tired of hope speech, because they hear it so much. We're becoming saturated with this, "Keep hope alive, there's hope even if you're hopeless, this is a moment to hope against the eyes." But it's become so superficial that it's meaningless.

Anne Strainchamps (04:28):

Andre thinks there are actually two kinds of hope, deep hope and shallow hope. Shallow is the familiar kind. "I hope my career is successful, my kids do well in school, I hope my pizza comes soon," But we're forgetting the deep hope. Andre says, it's harder to find, "Oh! You're describing this paradox where, we're talking more and more about hope and feeling less and less of it."

Andre Willis (04:59):

While you were feeling less and less of the kind of deep hope that I'm after, but maybe we're being more and more compelled by this idea. That hope is just a kind of belief. And if you have enough of it, you can attain this future object. So I think it might work for some, at least it can work for some, for some time, but there's always this confrontation with the tragic that is this facing of the ultimate attending to someone with say a degenerative disease like Alzheimer's or to be close to communities that go downhill. That language of hope is unsatisfying in those situations because there's no way out, things do not get better. Watching folks in those situations has taught me. That is a deeper relation to the present is the kind of hope I might be happy with thinking about. And that's what I call the deep hope.

Anne Strainchamps (06:01):

Can you help me understand that more? For instance, you described some situations caring for somebody with Alzheimer's or somebody with another degenerative disease. Have you had that experience yourself?

Andre Willis (06:14):

No, I've come close to a lot of folks who are dying in my service as a family member and as a minister, I used to be a minister in a Baptist church. So, I've been around death, buried folks and married folks. What I learned from those experience is that, deep hope might be as simple as forms of togetherness. That is people in communities still come together, whether they can improve the situation or not, is not the question is the togetherness itself, which I want to think about as a form of hope that is sustaining. It's not future directed and future oriented, is not engaged with a kind of probability question about what's coming later, but it's fully present.

Anne Strainchamps (07:06):

What does that look like? It sounds like you're talking about people coming together at a time of despair, knowing that things are not going to get better. What does hope mean in that situation?

Andre Willis (07:22):

We turn the Martin Luther King as a way of answering that question, but it's not the Martin Luther King who's been commodified in the, I Have a Dream speech of 1963, is actually another sermon that Martin gave called Unfulfilled Dreams, where he talked about all of our hopes being always blasted in our dreams, persistently shattered.

Anne Strainchamps (07:45):

That is not the Martin Luther King, Jr. I know

Andre Willis (07:49):

Exactly. And he gave this sermon, Unfulfilled Dreams, more than one time. He also gave it a month before he was murdered. What Martin described in that sermon was that, his dreams were not going to come true, that his project ultimately was going to fail, and it had fallen short. But that he knew he was not to be judged by what his hopes were and how they were not reached, but the quality and depth of commitment in his community in his own heart. So, that's what I think about as a kind of deep hope.

Anne Strainchamps (08:30):

I'm still trying to imagine a hope that isn't about a goal and maybe even isn't about the future. What does it feel like to you to say, "Yes I have hope?"

Andre Willis (08:44):

I think less a redefining of hope than it is what comes from witnessing what people do when they're really facing odds that are insurmountable. They tend to, when they're at their best, let go of... At some point, I guess we all will let go of some future aspirations, but we'll simply become more present and more in touch with the beauty and the simplicity of life as it's unfolding in front of us. So, Rachel Naomi Remen talks about this. She works with survivors of cancer, people who are living with cancer, and she talks about a terminally ill patient who is able to go home to die and sees a full bottle of dish washing liquid on the sink. And she sees it in such a new way that it evokes a sense of overall beauty and a fundamental unity of all. And so, Rachel Naomi Remens question is, why does it take such overwhelmingly dire circumstances to get to that kind of foundational understanding? Here's where I come in. I say, it can redirect us away from the kind of commercialized, commodified and frivolous superficial forms of hope, that we're often captivated by.

Anne Strainchamps (10:30):

But Andre, I have to say, I'm hardly alone. I look around the world, I read the newspapers. And you talked about the people you see on the street with such unhappiness. I think about climate change, I think about my children and whether they're going to have much of a future, and I think of all those people massed at the border, desperate to get somewhere. I'm scared about the future and things look bad.

Andre Willis (11:02):

I'm glad you said that, because that kind of hits the nail on the head for me. The problem for me with the grammar of hope is that, it doesn't attend to the catastrophes that we're facing. So, if we were to say that there's actually hope for the planet, given what we know, we're telling ourselves a lie. The best thing we can do, I think, is to prepare for what's coming. That's the kind of deep hope I'm after, which is to say that, "We don't need a romantic story about how we can overcome this problem." The problem's not going to go away. We can do better to confront it, but we're not going to solve it. How do you live with that? That's the kind of deep hope I'm calling for. Be present to it, be together with others in it and face it honestly. That's a form of hope that we don't see a lot in our culture.

Anne Strainchamps (12:10):

I think you find that, especially in the African-American tradition. Is that why that tradition of deep hope comes to us from people who have been rendered hopeless?

Andre Willis (12:23):

Certainly I think that this is what the complicated gift of suffering can do when folks have faced insurmountable odds for generations. And we look at what they've done, something like the blues, a form, which in itself isn't future oriented or directed toward probable aim, but celebrates a way of being together in the face of what is. And we see this in other forms of suffering too. I'm reminded of certain descriptions of Jews in concentration camps, Where there's a whole lot of togetherness, some singing, some, "Hey, we're not going to get out of here. But the best we can do, is to attend to what is face to face with this despairing grief."

Anne Strainchamps (13:16):

I'm thinking about the days after 9/11, there was so much tragedy, so much grief. And at the same time, what so many people have said is that, that was a really wonderful period of time because people came together, there was this sense of collective shared kindness.

Andre Willis (13:36):

What I like about that point is that, there's another approach that also is useful, which is simply to be a hope. And I think post 9/11, was a context when people knew that they had to act, and they had to act in ways that were useful for themselves and their neighbors. Therefore, one is the hope of the neighborhood, the hope of their community, the hope that helps us get through these highs, not overcomes them, but helps us deal with them.

Anne Strainchamps (14:16):

Andre Willis is a Professor of Religious studies at Brown University. He writes about the enlightenment, hope, and African-American religion. So, here's a scary idea, What if the secret to feeling more hope is not philosophy but neuroscience. And what if someday a doctor can hook you up to a nifty device and say, "Look, here's your brain." On hope, it's not as far fetched as you'd think.

Speaker 26 (14:56):

They put a little electrode through the sculp, and they target an area in the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, that is in your frontal part of your brain. And by triggering electricity to that part of the brain, there's an immediate reaction in patients, immediately, like that exact second. Suddenly they describe it as a feeling of warmth and hope. I think one patient said something like, "It's a feeling of strength." It's all dark, and then the moment that little electrode is turned on, it's simulating the neurons in that part of the brain, there is a feeling of hope and optimism. So, it already exists.

Anne Strainchamps (15:55):

Sounds good to me. Stick around, more hope is on the way. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We started this hour talking about how hard it can be to hold onto hope, especially today when there's so much to worry about. Maybe we don't have to work so hard at it, because it turns out we are hardwired for hope and optimism from birth.

Anne Strainchamps (16:30):

Tali Sharot is the neuroscientist, is best known for discovering our brains optimism bias. And she started out looking at the brain system we use to store memories, and then she discovered that we use the very same system to imagine the future, which we do a lot of. So, Tali tried asking people to imagine bad, terrible futures. She told Steve Paulson, it did not go the way she thought at all.

Tali Sharot (16:58):

When I started my experiment, something unexpected happened, which is, people kept taking the events that, I would telling them to imagine, and they were turning them to something positive. For example, I would say, "Imagine the breakup of a relationship." And someone said, "I broke up with my girlfriend and then I found a better one." So, this was quite upsetting because, it ruined my experiment...

Steve Paulson (17:22):

You might've got drawn some comfort, from where these people were responding.

Tali Sharot (17:27):

Because I was going to see what happens in the brain when you imagine these negative events, but people were reluctant to imagine them so, that was not good. And at the end, I thought, "Actually this is perhaps more interesting than what I started out investigating." And I looked into the literature about this thing called the optimism bias, which is a tendency of people to imagine the future as being better than the past and the present. It wasn't known where this is coming from, what's underlying it? What are the cognitive and neural mechanisms that generate this optimism bias? That's how I started trying to figure out where it's coming from, how is it happening?

Steve Paulson (18:00):

How is it happening?

Tali Sharot (18:02):

One key insight that we had from our research is that, people tend to learn less from unexpected negative information than unexpected positive information. For example, if I tell you, "You're less likely to have cancer than you thought." I give you positive news. You're more likely to take that positive information in and change your beliefs. But if I tell you, "You are more likely to have cancer, than you thought." So, this is bad news. You're less likely to listen. When we looked in the brain, what we could see is that parts of our frontal lobe, in the front of our brain, we could look at the activity there and we could see that there was not as precise and good, I would say, encoding of this negative information versus positive information.

Steve Paulson (18:45):

Are you saying the brain is hardwired to be hopeful?

Tali Sharot (18:51):

Whether it's hardwired, is a tricky question. On the one hand, we believe that humans, yes, have evolved to be optimistic. The reason that we believe that is that, we see optimism bias in different individuals, in different cultures, and also in non-human animals. There are quite sophisticated designs and paradigms to look at different kinds of species, from bees, to even pigs and birds, and show that actually they have optimism and positive expectations. So, that also suggests that it's something that we have evolved to be, that it's not dependent on a culture.

Tali Sharot (19:32):

That would suggest something that you call hardwired. But what we found recently is that, in fact it's even better than that. So, it's not that people are always optimistic leader, optimistically bias, but it depends on the context. In fact, if you put them in dangerous situations and you put them under stress, they suddenly become hyper-vigilant to the negative and they no longer have an optimism bias, and this can happen within minutes or within seconds.

Steve Paulson (19:59):

You can see this in evolutionary terms. If our ancestors were out on the Savannah and a lion approached them, you want to have that stressful reaction, you want to see danger.

Tali Sharot (20:10):

Exactly. And so, the brain has this little trick. It changes this optimism bias. Why is that a good thing? If you think about it, the consequence of having an optimism bias and we haven't even defined what an optimism bias is. So, an optimism bias is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening in your life, such as professional success, or having talented kids, or having a happy marriage, and underestimating the likelihood of negative events such as divorce, cancer, accidents. And so, you can think, "Why do we have the optimism bias, is it good for us, is it bad for us?"

Tali Sharot (20:46):

If you do have these positive expectations, that actually is related to better mental health, anxiety is reduced. That's good. It's also related to better physical health. Turned out that people who have positive expectations, live longer and get over illnesses quicker. Again, because you have less stress. That's good for your physical health, but also, because people think, "I'm going to do okay, because I'm going to make it okay."

Steve Paulson (21:12):

It's much easier to go out and chase after goals, if you believe you can meet those goals rather than if you think, "Oh, I'm never going to be able to do that."

Tali Sharot (21:20):

Absolutely. If I wake up in the morning and I say, "My projects are not going to work out." Then I just stay in bed and I don't try. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it determines our actions. But on the negative side, you can say, "If you underestimate negative events, you're underestimating risk. This is not good." You might not go to medical screenings when you need to, you might not buy insurance, you might not take precaution. So, some people say that the 2008 financial collapse is related to an optimism bias where people were under estimating the dangers of the financial market, and that led to the collapse so, these are the dangers.

Steve Paulson (21:58):

Now, you're using the word optimism. Does that mean the same thing as hope to you?

Tali Sharot (22:04):

Not quite. Hope is what you want to happen. Optimism is the belief that what you want to happen will happen. And the optimism bias, is the error that we make, is believing that it's more likely the things that we hope for, are more likely than they actually end up being.

Steve Paulson (22:21):

Do you say that 80% of people are naturally optimistic? Which I have to say, is as a huge number.

Tali Sharot (22:29):

Yeah. So, that number comes up again and again, and again, every experiment, every survey, any way you look at it, it's always 80 something percent. The studies show that, most of us are mildly optimistic, but this mild optimism on average is not a bad thing. Optimists tend to also be happier. One thing that really affects our happiness is not necessarily what we're doing in the moment, but what we believe will happen in the future. So, if I think, "This weekend, I have plans for a great ski outing or something," That will affect my happiness today.

Steve Paulson (23:07):

You're basically suggesting, it's probably good for us to be slightly diluted about [things that work 00:23:13].

Tali Sharot (23:15):

We find that people that do not have optimism bias, for example, which is an illusion are ones that are likely to be depressed. So, people with mild depression have no bias. That means that, sometimes they air on the optimism side, sometimes they air on the pessimism side. On average, they don't have a systematic bias, but those with severe depression have a pessimistic bias. That means that, they tend to expect the future to be worse than it ends up being.

Steve Paulson (23:42):

I've heard some psychologists talk about a set point of happiness, that people basically have a limited range, and how much they can actually change their natural tendency to be happy. I'm wondering if that's also true for optimism or if you want to be more optimistic. Can you actually boost that level that you have?

Tali Sharot (24:05):

It's very difficult, but some scientists suggests that it is possible. For example, Martin Seligman has studies where he actively tries to boost optimism, individuals who are not optimistic. These are normally people who have some form of depression. His training is mostly about how you interpret events. So, optimists tend to interpret positive events as related to them personally. For example, if you're an engineer and you did a project at work and it works really well, the optimists tend to say, "This worked well because I'm really good at maths, that I'm a really good engineer. And not only that, I'm probably just intelligent in general." And so, that means that I'll be good, not only in these specific projects, but they generalize it to many other things in life. That means that, other things in life in the future will turn out well.

Tali Sharot (24:58):

And when they fail, they tend to interpret the failure as not related to themselves, as temporary and not generalize it. So, if the project failed, it's more about, "I happened to not put enough effort this time," Or "Oh, my competitor happened to do better. It's not about me being stupid, it definitely doesn't generalize to other parts of my life, and therefore would not affect what I would expect in the future." This is kind of the optimist way of thinking and so, what Martin Seligman does, he tries to train individuals to think in this kind of way.

Steve Paulson (25:32):

So, you've said that optimism and hope are not exactly the same thing, but let me pose the related question then, do you think you can teach hope?

Tali Sharot (25:42):

Can you cause someone to hope for something? I think it's related to the question of motivation. Hoping you have to hope for something. And what can happen in mental illness for example, is that people don't have anything that they hope for, because they don't care anymore. There's no motivation, but that's what certain psychotherapy is about, I guess. Both hope and optimism are difficult. It's difficult to change, it's not impossible. People have shown that you could do it with certain amount of training, and certain talk therapies, and so on.

Steve Paulson (26:24):

Given this particular historical moment that we're living in, where there is so much political uncertainty, and climate change. A lot of people are feeling despair right now. I'm wondering if a neuroscientist perspective, can help us think through despair that so many people feel at this moment?

Tali Sharot (26:47):

Homie, neuroscience is only part of it. What we study is the human brain condition, the human mind. And one thing that has been known for quite a while is that, there is a great distinction between public and private. So, we have what we call private optimism, which is what we've talked about so far. But at the same time, we have public despair. So, we've talked about how people are optimistic about their own life, and their health, and their marriage, and so on. But at the same time, what we find is that, people do not actually exhibit optimism about public affairs at all.

Tali Sharot (27:23):

You would not see people saying that they're optimistic about their country, the future of their leaders, or even global warming. The question then becomes, why are we so optimistic about our own lives and the lives of our kids and our family, but not optimistic about these global affairs? There's a couple of answers, but one big one is that, we tend to believe we have control over our own life, that we can steer the wheel in the right direction, and so therefore we can make it, that life will become better, but we don't feel we have control over these big issues of politics and so on. And so we are not necessarily optimistic about those at all.

Anne Strainchamps (28:12):

Tali Sharot is the Director of the Affective Brain Lab and a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College in London. She's also the author of the Optimism Bias: Why We're Wired To Look on the Bright Side. And that was Steve Paulson talking with her.

Anne Strainchamps (28:36):

I was in Northern California recently in an area that's been decimated by forest fires. It's on the coast near Point Reyes. A spot that is literally on top of the San Andreas Fault. And I was there for a Geography of Hope Conference, I met Claire Peaslee there, she's a naturalist. And I asked her where she finds hope.

Claire Peaslee (29:02):

Hope, I've thought about that question quite a lot, because hope can be viewed as a delusion or a false medicine, a way of not looking at how things really are, because I'm in a delicate balancing act between excitement, and hope, and thrill for where we are right now, and deep bleak despair. I actually went out in to the Point Reyes National Seashore on a solo hike, I guess it was in late January, to walk with attention to the finest possible detail in the living world around us and let our minds relax, become rhythmic with a landscape.

Claire Peaslee (30:18):

Now we're breathing, now we're in the light, now we're in the shade. Our feet are wet or not, becoming a body again, becoming an animal, feeling your bones, feeling your pelvis, holding you up on your shoulder blades, dropping so your lungs open, and the pace. The walking pace, the reason why we evolved as an animal species. Because we came down out of the trees and started walking on two legs, swinging our arms, eyes straight ahead. What am I supposed to know here? What is there here for me to learn? Gradually and repeatedly, an answer just came or rose this simple. There are no secrets here, just put put one foot in front of the other.

Claire Peaslee (31:26):

We have another kind of intelligence, it comes from the more than human world. The sprouts of new twigs on a willow or unfurling of a fern, or insect life, [inaudible 00:31:48] glowing in the sunlight or [arenty 00:31:52] song. We're sensing things that are way, way, way down in the earth beneath us and energies that are in the atmosphere overhead. And if we can drop our identities for long enough to enter into that continuum, we know lots of things. We certainly know how to take care of this planet and one another. We're meant to be joyous and hope is joy for the future. There's no secret here, you just put one foot in front of the other.

Anne Strainchamps (32:40):

Claire Peasley is a naturalist who lives near Point Reyes, California. A special shout out to the Black Mountain Circle community and their Geography of Hope events.

Speaker 27 (32:58):

I was excited to hear your program because I think hope is so important. I'm a grandparent. We as grandparents, if we don't have hope, what kind of gift are we giving our grandchildren?

Speaker 28 (33:14):

I've seen the people that [inaudible 00:33:15]have the most tend to have belief in a higher power in their life.

Speaker 29 (33:22):

The times that I've been hopeless were the times when my mother passed away and then the hope comes in everyday life. I lecture my friends about it when they get so down about square, because that's the best gift we can give to the future is, to have hope for it and to maintain hope.

Anne Strainchamps (33:43):

What about you? Do you have thoughts about hope? You can share them with us. We made it really easy to record your voice. Just go to our website at ttbook.org/hope, share your thoughts and they just may wind up on the air.

Anne Strainchamps (34:11):

Coming up, poet Alice Walker on hope and why some of the most hopeful, optimistic people on the planet live in Nigeria. I'm Anne Strainchamps it's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.This hour, we're asking the question, where does hope come from? It's the first episode of a three hour series on hope from To the Best of Our Knowledge.

Steven Pinker (34:50):

[inaudible 00:34:50] My name is Steven Pinker. I'm the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. My Dangerous Idea is that today is the best time to be alive in all of human history.

Steven Pinker (35:09):

We live longer. For most of human history people could be expected to live no longer than 30 years on average. Today, in the developed world, life expectancy is greater than 80. And in the world as a whole, it is greater than 70.We are better educated. For most of human history most people were illiterate. Now 80 percent of the world is literate and 90 percent of the world under the age of 90 is as well.

Steven Pinker (35:39):

We have decimated the Horsemen of the Apocalypse — disease is down, famine is down, war is down, crime is down. We enjoy more small pleasures. We can sample Thai food, or Mexican food, or Vietnamese food, even in small American towns. We can access the world's culture and knowledge in a device that fits into a shirt pocket. If I want to see Casablanca I don't have to wait years for it to show up in a repertory theater, but stream it on demand.

Steven Pinker (36:22):

In area after area, life is much better despite the fact that if you consume news you might get the opposite impression. The reason I call this a dangerous idea is that so many of our literary intellectuals, our cultural critics, believe, and have believed for 150 years, that Western civilization is spiraling downward, circling the drain, and will soon collapse of its own decadence.

Steven Pinker (36:55):

It seems to be a surprisingly popular position among many intellectuals who often see their role as disparaging all the institutions of modernity. Since the benefits that we have enjoyed haven't come out of magic, we have to attribute them to institutions like the liberal democracy, like markets that have made us richer and more cooperative, to organizations of international cooperation like the United Nations, which for all of its ridiculous theater, has played a role in reducing the number of wars.

Steven Pinker (37:32):

Even though if there's something corny and square and unhip about crediting our institutions, I think they do deserve the credit for the fantastic progress that we have enjoyed

Anne Strainchamps (37:48):

Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard. He's the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. He makes a strong case that the world is getting better and better, but look around you. Do people seem happier? I guess it depends on where you live. For years now, international polls have ranked Nigeria as one of the most optimistic nations in the world. The U.S. not so much. In fact, American optimism has been steadily dropping, which is odd. Don't you think? Nigeria has rampant corruption, Boko Haram, poverty, and HIV/AIDS crisis. And America has everything. Chigozie Obioma grew up in Nigeria. He's a novelist and he teaches at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and he agrees, Nigerians are definitely more optimistic, more hopeful.

Chigozie Obioma (38:45):

Absolutely. Sometimes ago, somebody said to me, I think it was my dad's uncle, he said, "Here in Nigeria, everybody leaves on a miracle." It's hard to generalize of course, and stereotype people. But typically there is a very strongly built-in belief or culture of hope in Nigeria and optimism. People believe generally that, no matter what circumstance they are in right now is going to turn around.

Anne Strainchamps (39:20):

I think that would surprise so many people, because we're talking about countries that... If you walk around downtown Lagos, you'll see a lot of... If not actual misery, a lot of conditions for misery.

Chigozie Obioma (39:35):

Yes. That's what surprises me. So, I've been an academic in America for the past four years, I'll say, almost every semester, one or two very young students die.

Anne Strainchamps (39:51):

[inaudible 00:39:51]

Chigozie Obioma (39:51):

Yes, it's a very common thing. And I just keep wondering, what drives these, given that at least from an outside observer life seems good for all of them. All my students have cars and they're like 17, they're 18. You go to Nigeria, I was there just a month ago. And at least they, the place where my parents live right now, maybe two out of five families have a car. It’s a luxury, their life seems good. But U.S. students, they can wake up, take up their passports and go anywhere. They have at least some money they can make ends meet. So why do they lose hope so easily? So, it was just what informed that.

Anne Strainchamps (40:36):

You took on this project. You went to Nigeria and you started interviewing people, asking them about hope, optimism, happiness. Tell me about that project.

Chigozie Obioma (40:48):

I decided to go and investigate that happiness thing. I would just walk around, sometimes I'd take a taxi and just talk to people.

Anne Strainchamps (40:55):

What were you asking them?

Chigozie Obioma (40:56):

The first question was always, "Are you happy?" The second would be something like, "Is this you have? What is your job? What is it...? Are you married?" Something like that, just to try to pass out the economic standard. Then I asked them the ultimate question, "In this condition where you find yourself now, have you ever considered ending your life?" And most of them would just get mad at me. Yes, they will be like, "How could you even? Are you not in Nigeria? Why would you think of something like that?" That was the most common answer that they gave me.

Anne Strainchamps (41:33):

Is it because suicide is just very, very frowned on or was it something more like, "Why would you even assume I'd ever be that unhappy."

Chigozie Obioma (41:41):

For me, I think it is just the African way of seeing life. There is something about the importance of existence and family. It also has to do with the support system. We have extended, I call my cousins my brothers and sister, I don't see them as cousins. So, you're responsible, not just for yourself, but for a whole clan of people. I think that also has to do with that.

Anne Strainchamps (42:08):

There are African intellectuals who would say that, "That's not just about family structure, that, that feeling of connection to other people is built into so many African philosophies, in different parts of the country."

Chigozie Obioma (42:26):

Absolutely. And so, there's an ineffable feeling that I get whenever I'm in Nigeria, that I don't get anywhere else. I'm not trying to idealize it, I hate a lot of things about the poverty and all that, and the politics. But there's something about the humanity of the people, that strikes me as unique in the way that it's very difficult to grapple with. It might have to be with the fact that, a lot of people who come and try to be invested in your life, they ask you what an American might consider an invasive questions. Just somebody who doesn't know you. There's a freedom that I don't feel when I'm in the U.S. now and I meet a stranger become somewhat self-conscious, in a way that I almost never do when I'm in Nigeria.

Anne Strainchamps (43:20):

I am so happy to hear you say this, because I was in Ethiopia recently and Addis, like Lagos, a huge city, very conspicuous poverty, which was hard to see. And sitting on the plane coming back, I realized that I was so sad to be leaving. And I was trying to think, "What is it that I feel that I'll miss so much?" And it was hard to put my finger on it. It was something about the spirit or even the mood of the city.

Chigozie Obioma (43:55):

You know what my mom said when she came here? Sadly, she's not. She has only primary school education and can barely speak English. But she made an observation that I would not forget. She was like, "Is there a curfew here? It's so quiet, there's no noise. Nobody's making any kind of sound." I'm like, "Welcome to America." If your neighbor blaze a loud music, that's like nuisance, you can even get the person arrested. But if you go to a Lagos, the first thing that shocks you is the noise, is the animation. How I alive, how loud, how insanely lively and boisterous and loquacious it is like a thousand voices in your head at the same time. It feels more alive.

Anne Strainchamps (44:45):

People don't radiate as much friendliness here. I think, I don't know. Is that a huge stereotype?

Chigozie Obioma (44:52):

No, it's not. You're very right. Though these days because of the telephone culture you see most people are probably always on their phone in Lagos as one thing I observed. But when you're growing up, that would be the same, especially in the marketplaces that is teaming with humanity and people.

Anne Strainchamps (45:13):

In the West, there's always been this terrible attitude, post-colonization that the West has everything to teach Africa, and Africa has everything to learn from the West. It sounds like what you're saying it's most the reverse. Do you think people here could learn the African optimism or is it too late?

Chigozie Obioma (45:35):

I think that there is kind of a crisis here in mountain dent. I don't know exactly what they can learn from Africans though, because being poor is not a virtue, it's not a good thing. Having a political system that is insanely corrupt is not a great thing to either, but I also would wish that the sense of hope... There's a student of mine, whom I saw her from the moment she first came into my class two years ago, that she was going that way. She was always talking about how she's depressed and all that.

Chigozie Obioma (46:12):

And I took it upon myself to keep extra contact with her, give her book to read. I just would ask a write a story, let me read it. I'm trying to make us see that she can be a great writer in future and make something out of herself. And I think that, that has helped her a lot. She tends to be much, much hopeful. Wanting to have a future rather than just having this bleak perspective that, "I'm going to probably someday die or something." So, I hope that people can learn that. It is needful, I think

Anne Strainchamps (46:51):

Maybe we need Nigerian ambassadors of hope.

Chigozie Obioma (46:54):

If you say so.

Anne Strainchamps (46:56):

Chigozie Obiomas most recent novel is called An Orchestra of Minorities. He teaches at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. So, as we're discovering hope isn't a complicated even slippery word. Maybe it demands a poet's voice. Here's Alice Walker.

Alice Walker (47:30):

Hope Is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear, for Sundus Shaker Saleh, Iraqi mother, with my love. In our despair that justice is slow, we sit with heads bowed wondering how, even whether we will ever be healed. Perhaps it is a question only the ravaged, the violated seriously ask. And is that not now almost all of us? But hope is on the way. As usual Hope is a woman herding her children around her, all she retains of who she was; as usual except for her kids. She has lost almost everything.

Alice Walker (48:16):

Hope is a woman who has lost her fear. Along with her home, her employment, her parents, her olive trees, her grapes. The piece of independence; the reassuring noises of ordinary neighbors. Hope rises, she always does. Did we fail to notice this in all the stories they've tried to suppress? Hope rises. And she puts on her same unfashionable threadbare cloak, and penniless, she flings herself against the cold, polished, protective chain mail of the very powerful. The very rich chain mail that mimics suspiciously silver coins and lizard scales, and all she has to fight with is the reality of what was done to her, to her country, her people, her children, her home. All she has as armor is what she has learned, must never be done. Not in the name of war and especially never in the name of peace. Hope is always the teacher with the toughest homework. Our assignment: to grasp what has never been breathed in our stolen empire on the hill: without justice, we will never be healed.

Anne Strainchamps (49:40):

Alice Walker, reading her poem Hope Is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear. Her latest book is called, Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart. And that music was composed, especially for the poem by Wendel Patrick. He’s also a composer of original scores for the public radio show, Out of the Blocks. A special three-part series on hope will continue and we'll get practical, can you make hope? Here's the hip hop artist, Common.

Common (50:18):

Optimism is not just only looking at what in front of you and saying, "Man, and just determining from what you see in front of you that, that's going to be the end result." That's not what optimism is or hope is. Hope has to do with also seeing things that may not be right. They're tangible right there in your face at the moment, is having faith in the unseen. And I see a lot of hard times, but my hope and optimism also sees what's blossom and oddities, hard times.

Anne Strainchamps (50:52):

That's next time, on To the Best of Our Knowledge.

Automated (51:00):


Last modified: 
April 04, 2024