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A blog by Leon Oudejans

Hope is a virtue, not a feeling. And it’s practical, too. (WaPo)

Washington Post title: Hope is a virtue, not a feeling. And it’s practical, too.
By: E.J. Dionne Jr.
Date: 9 July 2023

“Hope is summoned so often in speeches and sermons that invoking it invites the very cynicism and resignation it is meant to answer. The word can seem to be a crutch to get past some unpleasantness, a deus ex machina contrived to move humanity from a terrible here to a delightful there with no effort, discipline or commitment.

But hope is a demanding virtue, not a sunny disposition. It accepts reality, acknowledges obstacles and insists, as the bard of hope Barack Obama put it, “that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.”

This aspiration became so central to Obama’s political life that the word itself came to be seen as partisan. Campaigning in the 2010 midterm elections, Sarah Palin, the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee two years earlier, coined a memorable dismissal: “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?”

But hope, like faith and love, is not the possession of any party or politician. And here’s something else about hope: It’s practical.

If hope isn’t exactly in the air these days, the work it does is on a lot of thoughtful minds. Two books published in the past year — one by an economist, the other by a theologically inclined humanities scholar — bring home why hope is central to policymaking and decent politics.

Carol Graham, my colleague at the Brookings Institution, has made the study of well-being her life’s work as an economist. Nodding to the reality that “The Power of Hope” reflects an unusual preoccupation within a discipline often referred to as “the dismal science,” Graham opens her first chapter with nice understatement: “Hope is a little-studied concept in economics.”

It shouldn’t be, she argues, because hope is relevant to so many of the outcomes economists seek, including upward mobility, a well-trained, dedicated workforce, better health and the economic growth that flows from all of them. Hope’s opposite, despair, is now an enormous, measurable problem.

“Despair in the United States today is a barrier to reviving our labor markets and productivity,” she writes. “It jeopardizes our well-being, longevity, families and communities.”

To pick a simple example Graham discusses: Nurturing hope matters to the success of job training and education policies because “they will not be taken up if people do not have hope in their own futures.” That’s because hope is not just a belief “that things will be better in the future,” but also confidence in “the ability to do something about that future.”

The good news is that well-being issues are working their way into the public debate, reflected in Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s report on loneliness, isolation and lack of connection as a public health crisis. Murthy argued that the choices government makes in transit, parks, libraries, family leave and technology can all build social as well as physical infrastructure to foster community — and, yes, hope.

The choices we make about the structure of the economy matter, too. Graham cites the celebrated work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton on “deaths of despair” among working-class Americans from suicide, alcohol-related diseases and drug overdoses. The loss of hope typically followed the loss of well-paying jobs and the collapse of communities.

Deaths of despair, Case and Deaton found, were especially common among lower-income Whites. Black Americans, perhaps from their long experience overcoming discrimination and oppression, showed measurably higher rates of resiliency. But Graham notes that in recent years, suicide rates have been rising sharply among young Black Americans, and deaths from drug overdoses among Black men have shot up, too. Restoring hope is a moral and policy imperative across racial lines.

It’s also an imperative in our politics, as Wake Forest University scholar Michael Lamb argues in “A Commonwealth of Hope,” a fascinating revisionist view of the political thought of St. Augustine. Contrary to a popular perception of Augustine as an otherworldly thinker who accents “darkness and pessimism,” Lamb sketches a persuasive portrait of a thinker who “encourages a realistic hope for a better form of community not only in heaven but on earth.”

Lamb’s Augustine grasps “both the limits and possibilities of politics” — wisdom demands we always keep both in mind — and he is thus “an especially valuable, if unlikely, ally in our contemporary moment.”

Like Graham in the policy sphere, Lamb highlights the high cost of despair in politics, which he argues “can license apathy or fatalism, encouraging citizens to withdraw from politics rather than stretch toward difficult political goods.”

His valuable warning: “When despair becomes a habit — a vice — it can further entrench the social and political problems that prompted pessimism in the first place.”

Democracy cannot work if citizens are demoralized and demobilized by such despair. You don’t have to be a sucker for the hopey changey thing to see why we need a rendezvous with hope — in our individual lives and in our common life, too.”


or a “similar” Dutch version:
NRC, 15 June 2023:


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