The cover photo is a segment from a mural in Dilijan, Armenia.
There’s a small supermarket down the street from where I live. I go there almost daily and have gotten to know the employees by name. A few weeks ago I had gone to pick up bread and milk. As is my custom, I asked the cashier who was serving me, whose name is also Maria, how she was. Instead of the customary response of “I’m fine” she said, “How should I be? There’s nothing to be happy about.” In the few seconds it took to respond, my mind was processing how we’re stuck in an unbearable cycle of negativity; it seems as though we have been trained to hold on to negative thoughts; how 3 million people in Armenia seem to be afflicted with a constant, nagging dissatisfaction and misery; of hopelessness.
“But we’re alive and we’re healthy. We have our children and grandchildren and they’re healthy. Isn’t that something to be happy about?” I asked. She looked up at me and the crease in her brow seemed to disappear for a second, and almost tenderly, she said,’ Yes, Maria, you’re right. Have a good day.”
For the record, I am a hopeless idealist and I am almost always hopelessly hopeful. I see the world, always, half-full and never half-empty. Even in the depths of my despair…because I have been in the depths of despair, I have held on to hope. Not because my brain is wired that way, but because the universe has been kind enough to have given me the life lessons and experiences to know that you always come out on the other side of despair stronger, wiser, yes a little bruised, but certainly a better person.
I acknowledge that hope is an abstract construct and when you’re struggling, engulfed in poverty and injustice, when you can barely feed your family, when your son is on the frontlines of a simmering war, when your husband is a labor migrant and you are alone and scared, when you have aging parents you can’t care for, when you feel that the whole world is conspiring against you, hanging on to hope may be excruciatingly difficult, perhaps even impossible.
In the absence of hope, however, every other human condition or emotion – love, joy, fulfillment, dreams, success, peace – cannot exist. Imagine love without hope for its longevity. Imagine joy without hope. How can you be fulfilled if hope is lost? How can you find peace in the absence of hope? How can you dream for a better life if there is no hope for a better life?
I also acknowledge that in a country that is struggling, that is engulfed in poverty and injustice, that is sitting on a simmering conflict, I lead a privileged life. Maybe people will think it’s easy for me to be hopeful. But my life hasn’t always been easy. I suspect my sisters and I have spent most of our adult life trying to get over our childhood, I doubt we ever will, but the only thing that allowed us to survive was love and hope.
We need a social reformation to find the path to hope and the transformation starts with ourselves.
Sir Fazle Abed of a Bangladeshi aid organization said that poverty is not just poverty of money or income, it is a poverty of self-esteem, hope, opportunity and freedom. People trapped in a cycle of destitution often don’t realize that their lives can be changed for the better through their own activities. Once they understand it, a light gets turned on.
This sense of hopelessness all around us has created a psychological trap in which people feel they are drowning with no lifeboat in sight.
Having hope is hard work and it takes effort. You have to be involved in your hope. You have to be hopelessly hopeful.
And yet, hope or the lack of it, is a learned behavior, our thought processes are acquired through the process of socialization. Or are they?
A neuropsychologist and New York Times best-selling author, Rick Hanson says that we humans are evolutionarily wired with a negative bias – that is, our minds focus naturally on the bad and… the good? We simply discard it. Our ancestors found it much more useful to avoid threats than to collect rewards.
According to Hanson, an individual who successfully avoided a threat would be blessed with waking up the following morning and have the opportunity to collect a reward, but those who didn’t avoid the threat – well, they would probably be dead.
Thus, we are left to believe that the human brain evolved to focus on threats. Studies have shown that we can identify angry faces faster than happy ones. We are stuck on negative experiences and seem to deflect the positive ones. Like Maria, who works at our local grocery store.
And yet, I still hang on to hope because of the people I have had the honor to know in my 16 years in Armenia. Because of the untapped opportunities that I see all around me. Because of the people, young and old, who are crashing through brick walls and marble floors to create pockets of excellence in sectors from IT to agriculture to literature.
Armenia has been and is my hope. We need to eradicate our poverty of hope and believe in the power of ourselves.
Soon we will be commemorating the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. While we look back, we must also look forward and understand that if our grandparents had not struggled to survive, had not had hope, we would not have survived. The best way we can honor their memory and continue to fight for justice is to turn the light on, have hope and believe in our collective potential.