Don’t Give Us Any More Hope

The Plague at Athens’ by Nicolas Poussin depicting the infamous plague which struck ancient Athens in 430–427 BCE. (Gallery of Sir Frederick Cook, Richmond, UK)

Having long promised that the UK would be able to celebrate Christmas with limited restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced this week that new restrictions that would keep many families apart after a year of separations and sacrifices, dashing the hopes of many. After the announcement the Prime Minister was confronted by Pippa Crerar, of the Daily Mirror, who asked about his record of over-promising and under-delivering. Did he recognise it causes public confusion and erodes public confidence? His seemingly unironic response was: “We can certainly look forward to a very, very different world from Easter onwards”. The Prime Minister’s supporters pointed out that in these dark times people need hope, even if his repeated promises were later repeatedly broken.

From the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, in which hope was left in the jar after sickness, death and other unspecified evils were released into the world, to the political philosophy of former US president Barack Obama, whose successful 2008 presidential campaign used hope as the central theme, hope is seen as an unequivocally positive attribute. Hope is the antonym of fear. In Christianity, with love and faith, it is one of the three virtues. But was hope kept in Pandora’s jar to be there to help us, or to keep hope from us? My time in the military taught me that hope was not necessarily a good thing. Indeed, hope was actively discouraged.

Many who have served in the military will have previously experienced last-minute cancellations of Christmas due to last minute operational demands, but it isn’t just prior experience that will mean we are better prepared to deal with this disappointment. Deliberate scenarios in training prepare you for what the military calls ‘dislocation of expectation’. The classic example is seeing the ‘four-tonner’ trucks appear on the cold, wet, horizon at the end of a long route march, the sign that the exercise is nearly over and a warm shower and a hot meal are within grasp, to then, just before you reach them, see them pull away and be told you have another eight miles to go. It is the same feeling you get when climbing a hill and you reach what you think is the summit, only to find it is a false peak and the real summit is a further climb away. The idea is that by regularly distorting the short-term expectations of soldiers they build their long-term resilience to manage any nasty surprises that a future battlefield could provide and focus on their own ability rather than rely on any external help or support. It is used extensively in selection courses to elite units and mentally breaks a high number of those who would otherwise physically pass.

Dislocation of expectation teaches a similar lesson to that which is handed down to us by the ancient Greek and then Roman school of philosophy Stoicism. Stoics, such as that of the Roman emperor and general Marcus Aurelius and the former slave and early Stoic Epictetus, have long been popular with military leaders. Since 2009, the US Military has taught Stoicism to their soldiers, teaching them to focus on what they can control, become comfortable with what they cannot, and accept the reality of any given situation. A Stoic amends their will to suit the world and remain, in the words of Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy”. Hope tends to go beyond what you can control and can prevent acceptance of the situation one finds oneself in. Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is a desire for an outcome together with a belief that the outcome is more likely than not, or at least more likely than the evidence leads other people to believe. Hope is independent of probability assessments; it is a belief in the unlikely.

In Greek historian Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, a book often quoted by Johnson, it is noted that those who hope typically have a poor understanding of their situation, fail to come up with good plans, and things go badly for them in war. More recently philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus rejected hope as the expression of a misguided relationship to the world that is unable to face the demands of human existence. In a global pandemic, as much as in war, we want our leaders to come up with good plans have that have a high probability of succeeding, and have a realistic appreciation of the situation we are in, rather than believing in an unattainable world they want to exist that is far from the one that does.

We want to be able to believe them when they tell us good news about the future. Over a long enough timeline, such as that of a global pandemic, if you regularly set overly hopeful short-term targets, rather than provide a longer term optimistic view, you will end up having the opposite effect to that which is intended. When we no longer believe them, they cannot offer us hope or optimism.

Some of the most interesting literature on hope has come from those who have experienced the most desperate situations. Situations so desperate that unlikely hope is all they had left. Holocaust survivor Viktor E Frankel discusses hope in his memoirs of his time in Auschwitz. For Frankel the hope that he would someday be reunited in his wife kept him going. Even here though Frankel noted the danger of putting your hope in specific highly unlikely short-term outcomes. He describes a friend who dreamt the war would be over by March 30th. On March 29th with no signs of the war ending he fell ill. By March 31st he had died. Frankel was told by the camp doctor that he believed the sharp increase in the death rate between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was due to prisoners living with the heartbreakingly naïve belief they would be home by Christmas. As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, disappointment overcame them and resulted in their physical deterioration.

In another extreme situation, that of missing people, hope can again have a negative effect. Whilst holding on to hope of a missing child’s return might be all that keeps a parent going it also prevents acceptance and can prolong the torture of not knowing for years after evidence overwhelmingly suggests the missing child is no longer alive.

These extreme examples can also provide us comfort from the knowledge that others have experienced much worse than what we are experiencing now and survived, shifting our focus from lamenting what we have lost to appreciating what we still have. There is much to still be optimistic about: the scientific and medical community has done some incredible work on vaccines and treatments, frontline medical staff have been heroic, essential workers have gone above and beyond, and the majority of the population are doing their bit by following guidelines and supporting those in their communities.

In Thucydides’ history he also gives us an account of the Great Plague that hit Athens in 430 BC and the lessons that he took from it (he believed a clear account of what he witnessed could help those in the future respond to similar events). He noted that those, who on catching the plague convinced themselves that they had no hope, were much quicker to give up and die. For the ancient Athenians, as much as those in the concentration camps of the twentieth century and for us today, staying positive in the face of adversity is important. However, whilst staying optimistic about the long-term will help us, our leaders shirking their responsibility to accept the reality of the situation and putting us through a national exercise in dislocation of expectation will not.



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