By Dr Gloria Marsay

There has been much debate around the concept of hope. There are opinions for and against the thought of whether hope is a strategy or not.  World leaders have expressed their opinions. Barack Obama spoke about embracing hope and change.  Rudy Giuliani disagreed with him and retorted that “change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy”.

Jeremy Weber (2018) claims that hope is not “a” strategy: it’s the only strategy.  He claims that hope as a strategy builds trust, inspires solutions to wicked problems, and helps us learn from our failures.

The core idea that “Hope is not a strategy is sometimes valid, because hope on its own is vague, ethereal, illusive and intersubjective.  Hope needs to be based on theory being put into action.  Hope can then be operationalised as a core strategy for success in the future. Macy and Johnstone, in their book Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy (2012) explain the difference between passive hope and active hope.  Passive hope is waiting for external agencies to bring about what you desire, while active hope is becoming an active participant in bringing about what you hope for.

Evidence for Hope

The concept of Hope is not new. When we examine evidence-based research in the literature both globally and in Africa, there is a strong body of evidence that shows that hope is mandatory for a meaningful and successful life. When people are hopeful, they tend to be able to overcome adversity more easily (Freire, 1992; Hooks, 2003; Palmer, 2014; Scioli & Biller, 2009; 2010; Snyder, 2000). More recently, a collection of articles on hope was published in The Oxford Handbook of Hope (2018) edited by Gallagher and Lopez.

Hope has been used to understand and ameliorate global crises in the past. More specifically in the African context, Pobee (2017) gives account of faith and hope in Africa. Lartey and Sharp’s publication Locating Hope (2016). This publication reflects proceedings of a conference with the theme Hope in the midst of suffering. Recently, there has been a rekindling of discussions around hope even in South African literature (Boesak 2014; Botman, 2007; Dreyer, 2011; Forster 2015; Gobodo-Madikisela 2014; Le Grange, 2011; Marsay, 2016, 2018, 2020; van Louw & Beets, 2011).

Respected leaders have said the following about hope.

Nelson Mandela:  “Our human compassion binds us one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt to turn our common suffering into hope for the future”.

Desmond Tutu:  “Hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness” and “ I’m not an optimist; I am a prisoner of hope.”

Dalai Lama:  “I find hope in the darkest of day, and focus in the brightest.  I do not judge the universe.”

So then, What is hope?  What makes some people able to hold onto hope more than others?

What is Hope?

Hope is an intersubjective concept that is difficult to define objectively. The theory of hope can be drawn from a multitude of disciplines: theology, philosophy, history and all the social sciences. Different theories examining hope are postulated by world acclaimed scholars who have spent considerable time and effort researching hope (Scioli & Biller 2009, 2010; Snyder 2000; Weingarten 2010).

Macy and Johnstone (2012) describe the process of active hope as involving three steps.  First to have a clear view of reality, second to identify what is hoped for in terms of direction and values which we would like to see expressed, and third, to take steps to move in a chosen direction.  So indeed, hope can be operationalized and used as a strategy to improve the lives people and communities within context.

What Hope is

-Hope is an endeavor to reach common understanding and entails commitment

-Hope is concerned with and about people

-Hope is about possibility and humankind’s unity in spite of diversity

-Hope is a resounding YES to justice and equality for all, opportunity and prosperity for all people

-Hope is investing in common humanity, repairing the world, healing all nations guided by a clear sense of unity

Hope can sometimes be criticised as a very elusive concept because too often it has been used unrealistically, and not rooted in reality.

What Hope is not

-Hope is not some kind of spiritual elixir

-Hope is not a denial of reality

-Hope and Despair are not opposites. Despair is the catalyst for HOPE

-Hope is a series of small actions that transforms darkness into light

-Hope is not just a sentiment, it is a vision to be pursued.

A vision of hope must be discerned in the midst of challenges that threaten our well-being, and action taken to ameliorate the problem. Hope is a practice.  Hope is something that we do, rather than something that we have.

Operationalising Hope as a strategy

I am choosing to use the constructs of hope described by Scioli and Biller (2009, 2010) who explain fundamental hope as a future-directed network, constructed from biological, psychological, and social resources. Scioli and Biller argue that hope, in its fullest sense, encompasses the four greatest needs of a human being, namely,

Attachment – trust in the knowledge of the experts, openness in our acceptance of their wisdom, and connection with others (social media allows us to do this while maintaining the mandatory social distancing during this lockdown period),

Mastery – acknowledging the skills we have, and what skills we need to acquire to be competent in our way forward (empowerment, ambition, and ideals),

Survival – self regulation, doing what we need to do and making necessary changes to our lifestyle, to keep ourselves and others safe.

Spirituality – faith and meaning. The spiritual task of life is to feed the hope that comes out of despair. Despair cements us in the present. Hope enables us to move forward trusting in a tomorrow we cannot see at present because of the past habits of life we find difficult to forget and let go of.

St Augustine used a wonderful metaphor to explain the “action” part of hope.  He says that Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.  Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.

In medicine and human services, we tend to refer to “health providers”.  I propose that leaders in the community can become effective in developing active hope.  We can call them “hope providers”.  There is a challenge for each of us, during this time of uncertainty, to become hope providers and to develop a hope filled plan of action, so that our tomorrows will be bright.    Let’s revisit and awaken the core values of Ubuntu – humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion.

Dr Gloria Marsay is a registered Educational Psychologist working in private practice, and Research Fellow at the University of the Free State. She also works with caregivers of people suffering from mental and physical illness as a volunteer with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), teaching about doing hope as an active strategy.


Psychological Society of South Africa

Psychological Society of South Africa

PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives...

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