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Why we sometimes despise hope

There is a concerning trend in the self-help world that appears to be getting stronger. Life coaches are sprouting out from every troubled soul, ignore that irony for now, and motivational speakers are plentiful. Clinical psychology is supposedly more advanced than ever with better understandings of the working of the human brain through complex and sophisticated scanning technologies, and psychiatry with a pill for every mood. Given this very elaborate range of therapies and interventions that are available, you’d be forgiven for wondering why the world is still in such a state of dysfunction and only getting worse.

If you didn’t wonder about that, then perhaps you’re one of the many that seem to be distracted by the sea of movement in the doctors of the soul while not noticing any meaningful shift in the souls being doctored. Perhaps the message, the intervention, and the feel-good therapy is not reaching the soul. What if the collective wisdom of them all is misguided in its point of departure?

Mainstream medicine denies the existence of the soul, and by implication, denies the possibility of intelligent design in the created world, humans being a very core part of that creation. If this were merely a philosophical point of interest, there’d be no harm in it. It would be each to their own and life goes on. Unfortunately, when it becomes the basis for defining physical and emotional health, it’s no longer just philosophical, it’s physical, and it’s dangerous.

What has the existence of a soul got to do with health, you might ask? Let’s avoid the distraction of religion or spirituality before answering that question, and instead of the soul, let’s just assume that there is a higher seat of intelligence that is not bridled nor defined by the chemicals in your brain. Instead, consider that those chemicals in fact respond to that higher intelligence. But why? Why is it important to consider this? The more important question is why is it detrimental to dismiss this as an option?

In the absence of this belief of a higher intelligence, not at a universal level, but simply in our individual lives, we’re confined to studying the state of the brain as being a result of itself. Apart from the logical challenge of this idea, we create a very curious chicken and egg situation. Does the thought shape the brain, or does the brain shape the thought? If the brain shapes the thought, then we are compelled, by human nature no less, to question to what end would the brain be motivated to spawn a thought. Apart from physically maintaining the state of the body in a healthy or balanced condition, why would the brain have any reason to need to go beyond that absolute minimum? In fact, why would the brain have a need to maintain even that much? What is the consequence of it not fulfilling that purpose apart from death, beyond which it simply ceases to exist? 

Back to the alternative based on the absence of a higher seat of intelligence. If the thought shapes the brain, what then is the origin of the thought? Chemicals, you say? But that would again suggest that the brain is spawning and shaping itself since those chemicals are an intrinsic part of the brain function. However, science tells us differently. According to science, a smile generates feel-good hormones even if the smile is forced or based on a manufactured state of happiness. Even Psychology Today  agrees:

Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.

The idea that chemicals in our brain are influenced by our thoughts and experiences is not new, nor new age-y in origin. This is what Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel has to say about the way the brain works:

“You could double the number of synaptic connections in a very simple neurocircuit as a result of experience and learning. The reason for that was that long-term memory alters the expression of genes in nerve cells, which is the cause of the growth of new synaptic connections. When you see that at the cellular level, you realize that the brain can change because of experience. It gives you a different feeling about how nature and nurture interact. They are not separate processes.”

Science has also confirmed that through a process called neuroplasticity, which is basically what the above quote from Kandel confirms, changes in the brain result from experience, and not the other way around. The choices we make influences the chemical balance and the neural pathways in our brains. Keep making bad choices, like choosing to be ungrateful, or seeing the worst possible outcomes and ignoring the good of what you’re faced with, and your brain will reflect that balance. Smile in the middle of it all and suddenly the clouds part and there’s a chance to see things more optimistically rather than pessimistically. Having the mental fortitude to force that smile on your face, well, not so easy because it is directly related to how entrenched you are in your choice to be bitter at the world, or optimistic about what it still offers. 

Optimism or pessimism are both choices. The trials we face can be unending or brutal with barely any space between them to just pause and take a breath, but succumbing to them is still a choice. Allowing our spirit to be broken is also a choice, even though it isn’t a choice taken lightly, nor one that should be made light of.  Depression is a state we achieve after persisting in pessimism or losing hope in what we assume the future to hold for us. None of us knows with absolute certainty what the future holds, so again, assuming the worst of the future is based on trends of negative outcomes in the past. But the moment you recognise even a single moment in your life when your projections about the future, or even the next moment turned out to be wrong because of a surprise occurrence that benefited you or gave you hope when you were expecting life to continue being bad, you know that it requires a deliberate effort to ignore such hope. 

But why would anyone want to ignore hope? We ignore or even actively resist hope if we are deathly afraid of being hurt again, or betrayed, or failing at something that has grown to define us in the eyes of others, and so much more. We avoid hope because we are afraid of getting it wrong, again, and then losing face with the people around us. At the core of this fear is our need to be significant, or to feel significant. The moment that significance is threatened, we find reason to protect ourselves from losing any shreds of credibility that remain in what little significance we feel. Thus, we find people holding on to struggles, bad relationships, horrible jobs, or toxic family members because their perseverance under such circumstances defines their strength, which in turn defines their sense of significance, and often, their sense of purpose. 

There is much camaraderie and solidarity in being victims. Support groups, if poorly facilitated, feed such a victim state of mind and result in victimhood becoming a badge of honour, or a statement of strength. 

But back to the question of the soul, or the seat of higher intelligence. Does it exist? Well, we already confirmed that the brain responds to what we choose, and what we experience. Choose to smile, and the state of your brain will reflect that choice. Similarly, choose to lose hope or to give up your right be happy, or to pursue happiness, and your brain will reflect the state of one given to depression. Depression is the absence of hope, and as stated above, sometimes we find good reason to spurn hope because its absence carries more certainty and a sense of familiarity than what hope has to offer. When we’re fearful about failing, spurning hope or denying opportunities by holding on to past events is all that gives us that sense of significance that we so desperately need in our effort to respond to a harsh world, without placing at risk the little significance that we already have. 

Zaid Ismail

Author, life coach, and mental health activist. We need to change the narrative from disorders, illnesses, and survival to accountability, understanding, and thriving.

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