Covid-19: agency and hope in dark times

In thinking about the importance of hope, I reached up to the section on my bookshelf with the larger part of my library on psychology, psychiatry, mental health, neuroscience and related works. I went through five in a row (including the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology) looking for references to hope. What did I find?


Now, it does happen that I have a separate section for the relatively small number of books I have that are specifically about hope itself. And all of them are in some way related to the Christian faith. But what does hope look like if one does not subscribe to such a worldview? And come to think of it, how does hope work for Christians? What’s the argument for it being more than mere ‘wish-fulfilment’?!

I then looked up ‘fear’ in the aforementioned Oxford dictionary. The only entry was ‘fear of success’. So then I understood that I would need to look up a word like ‘neurosis’ to get anywhere with that…

…which begs the question as to how we talk about and think about the unknown. And as this latest (at the time of writing) excerpt from a Sky News article shows, the unknown is most definitely here:

According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 435,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world, with more than 19,600 deaths.

China has the most confirmed cases with more than 81,500, Italy second with more than 69,000 and the US third with more than 55,000, the Johns Hopkins figures show.

The World Health Organisation has said the number of global coronavirus cases is expected to increase “considerably”.

The same article tells us that the death toll in Spain has just eclipsed that of China. So it was not a joke: Europe is now at the centre of this pandemic, and the UK is officially now on lockdown. And despite one expert on the radio suggesting that the people who have died in the UK from this virus would likely all have been dead within 12 months, a 21-year-old with no discernible health complications has just died here in the UK.

What are we going to do?

I’ll tell you what I think right now, knowing that my thoughts will evolve. What we need is a hope that is not dependent on language. Nor can it be dependent on the material. This is very bad news for many religious people, and I am myself very religious. But where I am going with this is that the external trappings of religion as expressed in words are not at all useful now. Part of the issue with language is that I can learn to speak words of hope and affirmation, but that does not mean that I am actually experiencing what I say I am. Language is necessary and yet ephemeral, and if hope itself depends on language, we are all done for (there are stronger ways of expressing this, but one can use one’s imagination).

I have been really enjoying the BBC’s Call the Midwife on the iPlayer, and one line from the Christmas Special 2014 (by ‘Sister Julienne’, played by Jenny Agutter) comes into its own at this point:

Certainty is fleeting. That is why we must have faith.

The concept of faith is of interest to philosophers as well as theologians, but there is something in the epithet above that operates beyond any specific worldview. In doing a food shop on day two of the UK lockdown, one could see the difference in how different stores were handling hygiene and social distancing. In one store, staff members were busy spraying baskets and trolleys with Dettol spray. Others created standing zones inside and outside their stores, and one refused to admit more than one person per household. Others seemed to attract the kind of clientele who seemed oblivious to the importance of keeping a ‘safe distance’. One can trust that these sorts of measures will reduce the risk of infection, but there are no guarantees in this regard. One can hope that the virus will pass by, but there is a sense in which this sort of hope is not really hope. It is in fact something closer to ‘desire’ which becomes complicated because there is no ‘power’ or ‘agency’ that can manufacture the desired circumstances. [By the way, this is possibly the most serious limitation of the self-help book industry – even strict injunctions to not moan and whine and make excuses come apart at the seams when certain circumstances of life (hence force majeur, quite literally!) conspire to ruin the hard work and sacrifices that some people have made in ways that they cannot control but with consequences and ramifications they cannot avoid.] And so maybe one thing we can do is think about the complete cessation of ‘questions’ beginning with ‘Why don’t you just

Atheists and agnostics have every right to be perturbed by the foundational inconsistencies found in Christian religious thought. Possibly the biggest such issue has become that of evolution and creation. Theistic evolution is beginning to represent the majority position in both Christianity and Christendom, and it is widely believed that such a perspective offers less ‘cognitive dissonance’ (a favourite phrase of the late Christopher Hitchens) in light of the enormous problem of evil and the challenge of maintaining faith in a God who is supposed to be good but who does not seem to have a problem with the innocent who suffer and die. But this position has a massive effect on the rest of the canon of beliefs associated with Christianity – one of which is that God cares for everyone and everything. If not, then however you define and practice it, prayer is a non-enterprise. We cannot say what Jesus accomplished on the cross has any personal meaning because God Himself plays dice (the so-called Christian universalists have decided that a loving God could not ever send anyone to hell, but this means that God usurps the free will of those who have no interest in God or in heaven (however understood). There is no such thing as a paradox-free worldview and more than one secular philosopher has acknowledged this. So we have no choice but to choose how we think, and that is where I am going with this.

More than one person seems determined to act as if they are the first person to say that we cannot control our circumstances, but we can control our responses. If you were born as a crack baby, that is simply not true (as attested to herein). Bruce Fink has pointed out that in Lacanian clinical-therapeutic processing, the desire of the analyst is in fact more important than that of the analysand  – because in Lacan, the idea that the analysand needs to want to change before change can take place is a non-starter. The analysand does not want to change. And so the analyst has to desire change on behalf of the analysand. However, without taking sides on that matter: perhaps one part of what makes hope possible is the fact that our agency is not all that we might want it to be – and thus hope becomes a necessary mechanism for the possibility of the possibility of change (that is not a typo, by the way). Nietzsche talked about the ‘will to power’. Later, Freud talked about ‘wish-fulfilment’. And later still, Sartre talked about ‘bad faith’. All three of these ideas are frequently butchered by both proponents and opponents but for now: there are some things that cannot be ‘willed’ into existence (e.g. not being 7 feet tall or not being whatever ethnicity one might be, or not being born into the circumstances into which one was in fact born). And Covid-19 is an example of a situation that cannot be rectified by ‘positive thinking’. Weak pseudo-theology passively bleats: ‘it must be God’s will’ and gets us nowhere (a more robust theological exposition is beyond the scope of this post). But anti-theology that rejects the God hypothesis completely has no answers either – although the early postmodernist slogan ‘we are rejecting untruthful certainty for truthful uncertainty’ certain has merit, no matter what one believes.

If we had the ‘agency’ to make things as we desired, we would not need hope. So this really raises the question of what hope is and why it could ever be more than wish-fulfilment or even bad faith. This blog post is making no claim to be anything other than a serious reflection of one individual who has really struggled with hope – not least because hope is also emblematic of the fact that there is no certainty. But instead of a theological trajectory towards faith, I am thinking more universally towards a rather different kind of hope that that envisaged by Alexander Pope, who took hope to be something that “springs eternal…” The growing suicide rate is indicative of the fact that hope has never been harder to find. But perhaps it can only be found in accepting that there are actual limits to human agency. Nietzsche’s Superman may have avoided the minefields of bad religion, but that does not mean that s/he exists (I’m not decrying people who self-identify on a more gender-fluid continuum, just so that’s clear). We can acknowledge the situations in which we find ourselves, and we can decide who we want to be in the context of the realities in which we live. And a major part of that involves looking out rather than in.

But looking out is not about living in cloud-cuckoo land, ignoring the realities of our lived experience (or life-world, as Husserl put it). It is about acknowledging that the question of whether life has any meaning is not ultimately dictated by external circumstances. It is not circumscribed by categories of thought and taxonomies of language that we might not have personally constructed and which we may not really believe in. There is no ‘rational’ argument for becoming a NHS Volunteer when standing at the doorway of a person self-isolating could bring you into contact with the virus. But that does not mean that it isn’t a good idea to reach out in that way (deliberate ‘double negative’ to make the point). It is easy to deride the people who bought all the pasta and toilet rolls and hand gel disinfectant bottles, but some would say that it is their duty to look after their families and that they should not be judged just because there is a shortage of these things. That is not their fault. And they are absolutely right. But looking outward and not hoarding voluntarily means that there could be hope that somehow, what one needs, one will receive. With 20% of the world population being obese and clinically obese and 15% being malnourished, one can only wonder what it might look like if resources were more equally distributed. One cannot fix that, but one can choose to look outwards and act accordingly. The fact that one cannot control whether others will reciprocate or behave positively is an intrinsic part of what makes hope be hope.

Covid-19 is only the latest thing in my life that I cannot control. It could even bring an end to a project that I love dearly and have sacrificed much for. But hope beyond fantasy and desire has come through and is coming through for me. I have my faith and I am grateful, but when the Apostle Paul speaks in the book of Romans about ‘being saved by hope’ I believe that he is talking about more than just the hope of Christians. He is talking about hope itself. The British-Nigerian actor Damson Idris (lead actor in the US drama Snowfall) once posted the following on Twitter:

Some get the support, some get the hate. It doesn’t stop you from being great.

Our own greatness is linked to the fact that we all possess it by virtue of being human. But there is no ultimate ‘argument’ for the notion that we actually matter and that our individual lives mean something (if you’re a Christian and this doesn’t make sense, it might be that at this moment you do not yet understand what an argument actually is in the technical sense of the word – and I do mean ‘argument’ as opposed to a word like ‘evidence’). That is a question that we have to decide for ourselves, and I do not see anything in evolutionary theory to support that big-picture question of meaning. But others do. And that is why hope is amazing – because it comes into existence by so many different routes. It is bigger than us. And in choosing to have hope and be hopeful, we discover that despite the lockdown, we might just be freer than we have ever been – because changing the circumstances has always been and will always be easier than changing our own minds.




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