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 I don’t have to be an optimist, and surely I’m not a pessimist. Rather, I’m a possibilist. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

I don’t have to be an optimist, and surely I’m not a pessimist. Rather, I’m a possibilist.(Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

What is Hope?

As long as I can see even the possibility that my actions now can make a difference in tackling our root crisis—the assault on our democracy along with citizens’ weakening confidence in democracy—I’m going for it

Frances Moore Lappé

I’ve been called a hope fiend, and I cop to it.

More than ever, hope isn’t just a “nice” feeling we’re lucky to experience from time to time. No, hope has become a requirement, as despair is our worst enemy. So, let me share a few things this fiend has learned about hope.  

First, it’s work.

Yes, I know that hope and effort don’t seem to go together. But think about it: A lot of good things in life—from a good meal to a good marriage—entail work, sometimes a lot of work. Yet, when we pause to savor them, we know it’s been worth it.

So, what is the work of hope?

To be clear, I don’t mean the effort of pushing out the bad news. Hope is not blind faith. Neither is it the cheery note struck by Harvard professor Steve Pinker, who in Enlightenment Now, for example, encourages us not to worry because things are really getting better. I’m not convinced.

But here’s the good news.

I discovered that hope starts with one realization: Given that the nature of life is continuous change in which we’re all connected—so that every action affects the whole, moment to moment—it is simply not possible to know what’s possible.

It is in this very unknowing that hope lives. Precisely because I cannot be certain, I am free. I am free to go for the world I really want.

Thus, I don’t have to be an optimist, and surely I’m not a pessimist. Rather, I’m a possibilist.

I have no need for certainty of success, or even strong probability. Hope is a stance, not an assessment. As long as I can see even the possibility that my actions now can make a difference in tackling our root crisis—the assault on our democracy along with citizens’ weakening confidence in democracy—I’m going for it.

I can continue eagerly throwing my energies into the rising movement for real democracy in America.

To stay in a sense of possibility, however, I do have a “secret tool” I’ll share. I keep a mental list of big, positive leaps that I would have given zero chance of ever happening…until they did.

Here’s one.

In the early 1950s our nation was gripped by McCarthyism. Now, that was a real “witch hunt,” and the lives of several of my parents’ friends were wrecked. (Merely belonging to the Unitarian church my folks had helped to found in Texas made them suspect.) It was a dark era, but with the passage of time and acts of courage our culture learned.

Just over one decade later, I became a warrior in the federal War on Poverty. I was paid by the government to go door-to-door in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods to help people who’d been abused by slumlords and callous welfare officers to understand their rights and to find strength in solidarity.

Thus, in only slightly more than one decade, our country went from fear and finger-pointing to a shared determination to confront the devastation of poverty. Ronald Reagan later quipped that in this war on poverty, poverty won. He was wrong. Americans cut the rate of poverty by half in just over decade.

Get the idea? Try coming up with your own list.

The fall of the Berlin Wall?

Barack Hussein Obama elected US president...twice?

Marriage equality?

Or, note that it was Republican Richard Nixon who established the EPA and signed the 1970 Clean Air Act, making it possible since then to cut levels of six major air pollutants by more than 70 percent, even though our economy has grown three-fold.

I rest my case. Today, I declare myself a hard-core, died-in-the-wool possibilist. Sure, it takes work, but hope is the great reward.


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Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "Diet for a Small Planet." Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want." Among her numerous previous books are "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want" (Nation Books) and "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life." She is co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute.

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