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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Why are People So Mean? Challenge #9: Hope

I started this series because of David Brooks. His article, "How America Got Mean" reflects the pulse of contemporary society, and while I applaud his efforts to explain and correct the problem of meanness, some important psychology is missing. This isn't Brooks's fault--one can only represent so many disciplines in a single article, and he did a remarkable job looking at technology, sociology, demography, economy, and moral formation. And, to be fair, Brooks does an exemplary job describing psychology in his various books, including his latest one, How to Know a Person.

I'm nearing the end of writing ten challenges for living well in a time of meanness. Each challenge is informed by psychology, and the final three come from positive psychology: faith, hope, and love. And if these sound religious, well, yes, they are. Positive psychology allows for some creative (and sometimes courageous) dabbling at the intersection of faith and psychology.

Challenge #8: Faith

Challenge #9: Hope

Challenge #10: Love

Ah, hope.

In one of Brooks's early books, The Road to Character, the word "hope" doesn't appear in the index, but arguably hope shows up on almost every page. For example...

The people in this book led diverse lives... But there is one pattern that recurs: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character... The everyday self-deceptions and illusions of self-mastery were shattered... But then the beauty began... When they had quieted themselves, they had opened up space for grace to flood in (pp. 13-14).

Hope lives here, where we acknowledge our descents, weakness, foibles, and yet find the strength to climb back up, forming a better self and better communities in the process. We face into our flaws and struggles and find that hope shines brighter than shame.

What does this have to do with being mean? I'll suggest three connections, though you'll likely think of more as you read. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Hope in the Ditches of Life

First, hope begins in the low places of life, in the ditches and pits. The Hebrew psalmist put it this way:

I waited patiently for the Lord to help me and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. (Psalm 40:1-2)

We face a choice when lying face down in the trench, to become bitter or better. Hope calls us to choose the latter.

Bitterness paves the way toward unfair comparisons, bringing others down to feel better about ourselves. Bitterness makes us mean.

Psychologists use the term "self-enhancement" to describe a vast array of research showing that we Westerners think more of ourselves than is reasonable. We perceive ourselves to be more moral than others, and we cluster together in groups of like-minded people, thinking that our group is better than other groups. The second challenge in this blog series offered Jonathan Haidt's words that "morality binds and blinds." We think we know the truth and others don't (Challenge #3, #4, #5). We struggle with inflated opinions of our own views (Challenge #6) and feel a need to punish those who disagree (Challenge #1). We fail to grieve, lashing out at others instead, and toward ourselves, too (Challenge #7).

How do we respond after tripping and falling in the ditch? It matters.

Hope and Prosociality

In the last post I introduced the jargonish scientific word, "prosociality."

A group of Midwest scholars recently published a thorough literature review on the connections between hope and prosociality.* The researchers found highly hopeful people to be more active in their communities, less prejudicial, more benevolent, compassionate toward others, and more altruistic.

I love the way the authors wrap up their study:

The present study provides evidence that points to hope as a character virtue that provides inherent benefit for others.

Hopeful people help make the world a better place.

What if Hope is a Person?

Hundreds of studies, maybe thousands, have been published on positive psychology and hope and almost all of them pertain to a model called "Hope Theory." This model suggests two dimensions to help us reach our goals: agency and pathways. Agency means a person has the motivation to get up out of the ditch, and Pathways means they know how to move toward a better future.

Agency = WillPower

Pathways = WayPower

As useful as this model has been for thirty years of hope research, it has been criticized for being too cognitive and invidualistic. Thankfully, some Australian researchers have recently suggested two new dimensions to hope theory:

Relationships = WePower

Meaning-making = WhyPower

I love this so much! With this revised model, hope is not just you or me mustering energy and knowing how to move forward toward our goals. No, hope is a team sport, embedded in the values that are important in our various communities. Hope emerges from relationship.

Though I don't remember much from 30 years ago, I remember hearing an amazing conference talk titled, "Hope is a person." What if it is?

Think about the ditches you have encountered in life. Is hope really just a matter of mustering the energy to stand up again and move toward a better future, or is it found in the love of someone who shows kindness--a partner, friend, pastor, therapist, or family member?

Hope shows up in flesh in blood, in kindness and love. Grace swirls all around us, and it shows up with names and faces, words of compassion, and acts of generosity.

My 9th challenge is to be this sort of person, the kind of human who offers a hand to the person writhing on the ground, and who accepts the hand being offered when I am the one lying in the ditch.

Even as I write this, I call to mind those who have been hope and grace to me. Perhaps you do also as you read these words.

If hope is a person, I want to be that sort of person and I want to surround myself with those who are.

Speaking of hope, happy holidays to you, my dear readers.


Previous posts in this series

Challenge #1: Vengelessness

Challenge #2: The Other Team Matters

Challenge #3: No, I am NOT Omniscient

Challenge #4: Hermeneutic Humility

Challenge #5: Minding Our Social Media Matters

Challenge #6: Meeting Our Inner Narcissist

Challenge #7: Good Grief


*Fun fact. One of my former graduate students at Wheaton College, Dr. Laura Edwards, is now Department Chair at Taylor University, and her daughter, Dr. Kendra Thomas, is a co-author of the article I am describing here.

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