Hope – A Virtue and a Double-Edged Sword

By Steve K.

Upon attending my very first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), I left with a real sense of hope that I could stop drinking alcohol and develop a better, more meaningful life. I sat in a room full of people who shared their various experiences of addiction to alcohol and how they had gotten sober through AA and its program of recovery.

Since that first AA meeting, I’ve listened to many other members of the Fellowship describe how they too felt hope upon encountering AA for the first time.

According to the American Psychological Association and research..

“Hope is associated with many positive outcomes, including greater happiness, more achievement, and even a lowered risk of death. It’s a necessary ingredient for getting through tough times, of course, but also for meeting everyday goals. Everyone benefits from having hope — and psychologists’ research suggests almost anyone can be taught to be more hopeful.” (1)

Having hope feels good, and it’s also good for you. Although not the same, it relates closely to faith and belief that good things will happen. Hope is optimistic that one can achieve something desired, that change can happen, or that a goal can be successfully met. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and is often an essential attitude and feeling we need to triumph against adversity.

I’m reminded of the film the ‘Shawshank Redemption’, where the character Red (Morgan Freeman) warns Andy (Tim Robbins) that “Hope is a dangerous thing.” Red is suggesting that Andy is setting himself up for disappointment and resentment and that he should just accept the harsh reality of his life sentence in prison. Andy rejects Red’s advice and holds on to his hope for freedom with this reply.. “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Andy never allows his hope to die and it serves as a motivating force for him to escape prison and eventually obtain his freedom. His hope was not a false hope.

Recovery and Hope

Does Alcoholics Anonymous offer a false hope from the prison of addiction? For most, I think not. Living an alcohol-free life is achievable for the majority of those that attend AA, if they truly want it and don’t allow their hope to die.

It’s true that some who go to AA don’t honestly want what it offers or disagree with its method of recovery. However, that’s not the same as offering false hope for recovery.

Is hope a dangerous thing as the character Red suggests? In the film, Red’s hopes for parole are repeatedly disappointed leaving him feeling defeated and accepting of his life in prison. Is he more content in prison because in the end he accepts his fate and doesn’t expect freedom? Maybe in Red’s case this is so. Stoic acceptance depends upon character and if the individual can accept their situation in life and determine to make the best of it. Without hope for change some decide to end their life as they cannot accept the reality of their existence. ‘Research dating back decades has shown that hopelessness is even more closely associated with suicide than depression.’ (2)

‘Throughout history, hope has been viewed favourably, and as virtually essential to our welfare. It seems inextricably woven into the fabric of human nature.’ (3) However, hope is somewhat paradoxical and certain types of hope are not that advantageous and can be the negative edge of a double-edged sword.

Philosophically, in particular from an eastern perspective, hope can serve as ‘attachment’ to desires and wants that cause discontent and unhappiness. If we are constantly wishing for change in the future, we are avoiding the reality of the present. It is also suggested by some that hope can prevent action. That it can stop us taking responsibility for making change happen, although I associate this more with some type of religious faith than hope. A belief that God etc, will provide us with what we want and desire.

Hope can also distort a realistic appraisal of reality due to its optimistic bias. It can prevent us from preparing for a negative outcome and therefore lessen our ability to stoically accept and cope with adversity.

“Speaking of the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, Darrell Arnold, Ph.D., discusses how Stoics saw inner peace as linked to eliminating hope, because hopes are eventually dashed. Moreover, the Stoics saw the emotion of anger as originating from..

misplaced hopes smash[ing] into unforeseen reality. We get mad, not at every bad thing, but at bad, unexpected things. So, we should expect bad things . . . and then we won’t be angry when things go wrong. Wisdom is reaching a state where no expected or unexpected tragedy disturbs our inner peace, so again we do best without hope.” (4)

While there is truth in this Stoic point of view, hopes are often realised, particularly if we don’t give up on them, believe in the possibility of realistic change, and optimistically work for what we want. If our hopes are realistic, they’re worth holding on to and making efforts to achieve. The ‘Serenity Prayer’ suggests accepting the realities we cannot change, and changing what we can and is within our power. In this respect, hope, for me, is a positive and motivating force to change what is possible.

The AA 12-Step program of recovery offers hope and suggests faith to those seeking freedom from addiction. I think the hope AA inspires is realistic and helpful to many who seek recovery from addiction in its rooms.

Does the faith AA advocates prevent us taking personal responsibility for recovery and encourage wishful thinking and passivity? I think this depends upon how the 12 Steps are related to and is possibly true for some people. However, in my experience and understanding the AA program is one of action. We have to work for the recovery and emotional sobriety we want and desire. Faith often inspires hope, which is ok as long as we’re willing to do the footwork of the change we want and hope for.

  1. ‘Being hopeful is good for you — and psychologists’ research is pinpointing ways to foster the feeling.’ By Kirsten Weir. American Psychological Association.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Seven Downsides of Hope. By Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D. Psychology Today.
  4. Ibid.

One thought on “Hope – A Virtue and a Double-Edged Sword

  1. Thank you for this insightful look at hope, Steve. At first I thought “What? A negative side to hope?” but as I read, I got it. And more than that, I’m IN it!
    Accepting chronic illness (as I’m trying to do) without getting ruffled every time my state of health changes would be easier without hope. I could even say that having hope is a form of denial.
    I see it more as a stage in my situation during which I investigate and exhaust all lines of enquiry re my health, accepting each one, until acceptance becomes the overriding state.
    Stoicism interests me too, not just in relation to my health, but as an outlook on life.
    Then of course, there’s that hope that arrives when I read articles like yours, and realise I’m not the first or only one going through my current challenges!! For that, I am humbly VERY grateful 😁. Thanks Steve, Penny

    Liked by 1 person

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