Hope isn’t simply an emotion, nor is it faith. A conversation with Dr. Jane Goodall provides some insight.
To begin our conversation about hope, Jane and I sat on her veranda in old, sturdy wooden folding chairs with green canvas seats and backs. We looked out at the backyard so filled with trees that it was almost impossible to see the Indian Ocean just beyond. A chorus of tropical birds sang, screeched, cackled, and called. Two rescue dogs came to curl up at Jane’s feet, and a cat meowed through a screen, insistent about contributing to the conversation. Jane seemed a little like a modern-day Saint Francis of Assisi, surrounded by and protecting all the animals.
“What is hope?” I began. “How do you define it?”
“Hope,” Jane said, “is what enables us to keep going in the face of adversity. It is what we desire to happen, but we must be prepared to work hard to make it so.” Jane grinned. “Like hoping this will be a good book. But it won’t be if we don’t bloody work at it.”
I smiled. “Yes, that is definitely one of my hopes, too. You said that hope is what we desire to happen, but we need to be prepared to work hard. So does hope require action?”
“I don’t think all hope requires action, because sometimes you can’t take action. If you’re in a cell in a prison where you’ve been thrown for no good reason, you can’t take action, but you can still hope to get out. I’ve been communicating with a group of conservationists who have been tried and given long sentences for putting up camera traps to record the presence of wildlife. They’re living in hope for the day they’re released through the actions of others, but they can’t actually take action themselves.”
It sounded like action and agency were important for generating hope, but that hope could survive even in a prison cell. A black cat with a white chest strolled out of the house and onto the balcony and jumped in Jane’s lap, curling up comfortably, his paws tucked under him.
“I’m wondering if animals have hope.”
Jane smiled. “Well, when Bugs here,” she said, petting the cat, “was sitting inside all that time, I suspect he was ‘hoping’ that eventually he would be let out. When he wants food, he gives plaintive meows and rubs against my legs with arched back and waving tail, as this usually produces the desired effect. I’m sure when he does that he’s hoping he will be fed. Think of your dog waiting in the window for you to come home. That’s clearly some form of hope. Chimps will often throw a tantrum when they don’t get what they want. That is some form of frustrated hope.”
It seemed like hope was not uniquely human, but I knew we’d return to what made hope unique in the human mind. For now, I wanted to understand how hope was different from another term with which it is often confused. “Many of the world’s religious traditions talk about hope in the same breath as faith,” I said. “Are hope and faith the same?”
“Hope and faith are very different, aren’t they,” Jane said, more as a statement than a question. “Faith is when you actually believe there is an intellectual power behind the universe, which can be translated into God or Allah or something like that. You believe in God, the Creator. You believe in life after death or some other doctrine. That’s faith. We can believe that these things are true, but we can’t know. But we can know the direction we want to go and we can hope that it is the right direction. Hope is more humble than faith, since no one can know the future.”
“You were saying that hope requires us to work hard to make what we want to happen actually happen.”
“Well, in certain contexts it is essential. Take this dire environmental nightmare we are living in today. We certainly hope that it is not too late to turn things around—but we know that this change will not happen unless we take action.”
“So by being active, you become more hopeful?”
“Well, you have it both ways. You won’t be active unless you hope that your action is going to do some good. So you need hope to get you going, but then by taking action, you generate more hope. It’s a circular thing.”
“So what actually is hope—an emotion?”
“No, it’s not an emotion.”
“So what is it?”
“It’s an aspect of our survival.”
“Is it a survival skill?”
“It’s not a skill. It’s something more innate, more profound. It’s almost a gift. Come on, think of another word.”
“‘Tool’? ‘Resource’? ‘Power’?”
“‘Power’ would do. ‘Power’—‘tool.’ Something like that. Not a power tool!” I laughed at Jane’s joke. “Not a drill?”
“No, not an electric drill,” Jane said, laughing, too.
“A survival mechanism ...?”
“Better, but less mechanical. A survival . . .” Jane paused, trying to come up with the right word.
“Impulse? Instinct?” I offered.
“Actually, it’s a survival trait,” she finally concluded. “That’s what it is. It is a human survival trait and without it we perish.”
If it was a survival trait, I wondered why some people had more of it than others, if it could be developed during particularly stressful times, and whether she had ever lost it.
Excerpted from The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams. Copyright (c) 2021 by the authors and reprinted with permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.