Hope Still Matters

A year to the day after writing about hope, Mays Imad reflects upon how faculty can experience and impart hope to students even now -- when many are, in fact, feeling hope-depleted themselves.

March 17, 2021
(Kouichi Chiba/E+/getty images)

And, when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal.

-- John O’Donohue

I remember back in 2007 when I learned about the Nisour Square massacre in Iraq. A family member was murdered that day. Along with Iraqis around the world, I felt the jolting trauma and helplessness of witnessing the continued atrocities against Iraq and innocent Iraqi civilians.

The morning after I heard the news, I opened my eyes and felt a sense of disappointment that I was alive -- that I had to endure yet another day. The thought of hope irritated me. After years of witnessing the destruction of my former homeland and my people, it felt as if I were collapsing under the weight of injustice. I stayed in bed.

At that time, I was a postdoctoral fellow and a mentor to students at my lab. One of my students messaged me that she was eager to discuss an article she had read about the neurobiology of fruit flies and had questions for me related to our project. She was excited, and I remember telling myself that there was someone who wants to learn about the world -- and that this young person was our future. And as her teacher, I had a role in building that better, more just and humane future.

Driving to work that day, I felt that I had to endure the present in order to tell the story of the victims in Iraq. But holding on to hope seemed like a monumental task; I negotiated with my brain to “sit with the pain.” On the days when I felt less grounded, my anchors became my students, the victims' memories and my commitment to forging a better world.

More recently, in the early weeks of the pandemic, I was keenly aware of my students' struggles. Reflecting on my own hardships, I decided to write a piece for educators, “Hope Matters,” inviting us to impart optimism to our students. I wrote the article -- which appeared a year ago to the day -- because, like my students, I, too, was looking for hope. Some of my students would ask me point-blank, “How do we hold on to hope?” I wasn't surprised at the question. After all, hope is an abstract concept. We don't intentionally teach about hope; we don't talk about it beyond a cursory mention of it (“Let’s hope the exam goes well”), and we certainly don’t know how to measure it.

I wrote that article because I have an idea of what it means to be a young student whose life is abruptly disrupted along with their community’s. I recognize that the isolation and ongoing uncertainty pushed many people young people to the edge of despair, and they are struggling for glimpses of hope from a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a beloved. For most of 2020, we experienced shocks of existential crises, and I found myself wondering, “Where can I find beauty and hope amid so much death, injustice and unresolved grief?” Again, the notion of hope irritated me. Nonetheless, I wondered, “How do I move forward?” and “What option do I have but to hope?”

To continue to hold on to hope, which at times feels absurdly difficult, I had to entertain the questions “Why hope?” “Does it matter to hope?” and “What does it mean to enact hope in myself and others?”

It was in moments of deafening hopelessness that I realized that before we can talk about and impart hope to others, it is essential to interrogate and reignite our own individual relationship with hope. How do we go from an abstract, raw concept of hope to a more developed understanding of what it is and how to cultivate it? How do we experience and impart hope in others when we are feeling hope-depleted?

To try to answer those questions, I read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Wynter and John O’Donohue. I examined the literature on the science of hope -- all in search of what it means to continue to hope amid pain and thunderous suffering. Through that search, I’ve come to appreciate that in order to take helplessness and transform it into something active, resistive and restorative -- what Audre Lorde termed “revolutionary hope” -- we must take certain steps.

Sit with the pain. When injustice and oppression are ongoing, hope may not be the appropriate response. To step forward, we must permit ourselves to feel. And once we fully feel, to hope is to wish for something better with the expectation of its fulfillment. To hope, we need to be discontent with the present and desire a better future; in fact, we need to be more than discontent -- we have to experience the agony and depth of the pain. Our pain can serve as a beacon, enabling us to move forward so we may begin to heal.

Wonder, question and imagine. When we feel pain­, we can begin to ask ourselves, “Is this all there is to life?” “How can this situation be better?” We can respond with courage, in creative ways, born of love for humanity. We engage our imagination to envision a better future not just for ourselves but for others, as well. We focus on concrete actions and goals within our own personal sphere -- for example, how can I help make the assessment in my introductory science courses more humane and focused on learning? Moreover, what can I do to support a colleague who is struggling?

Focus on the process. Starting with small and concrete actions to forge a better world for humanity is hard work, especially because we live in a culture that emphasizes outcomes. But if we focus on the process and don’t take things personally, we react to setbacks in ways that don’t derail our journey of hope. We keep walking. Remember, we are not alone on our journey, although we may feel alone. Many others are committed to not only teaching our students but also creating and sustaining a more just world.

Center the collective. When James Baldwin said, “I live a hope despite my knowing better,” he had historical and personal reasons not to have hope, yet he chose to continue to advocate for a better future. When we hope, we make predictions that depend on our current information, history, memory and what matters to us. In that sense, Baldwin’s love for humanity and commitment to justice were the forces that gave him the will to continue to hope. Centering the community helps us recognize that we are part of the equation but not the equation's focal point. The collective serves as an anchor to help us continue to hold on to hope even when hope becomes “hopeless.”

The Audacity to Move Forward

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating consequences, with systemic inequality, with violence against marginalized communities, with political divides, and with climate crises, I continued to reflect on a question: What critical opportunity does this story of tragic suffering, loss and divisiveness present me as an educator? And I keep coming back to: my work is to help students and colleagues move from a disruptive, lonely and disenchanted present to a future where all people can find meaning and thrive -- where we embody the dictum that our humanity, as Desmond Tutu reminds us, is “caught up and is inextricably bound up in” others.

Our self-work is undoubtedly crucial, and our inner transformation moves outward and touches the lives of those with whom we come in contact. Our students, more than ever, need us not merely to teach them knowledge but also to empower them to have the audacity to hope. The following are a few suggestions for how we may help our students continue to move forward.

Feel together, acknowledge and normalize. Feeling and emotions are not typically part of the story of higher education. Yet we know that if we are going to heal, and if higher education is going to play a role in that healing process, we will need to invite feelings, both the positive and the negative ones, into our classes. We should intentionally and regularly ask our students, “How are you feeling?” or “How are things going?” and pause to listen to their answers. Validate and normalize that these are challenging times. If you feel comfortable showing your vulnerability, talk about how you are dealing with the negativity and uncertainty. The path of hope is not always straightforward, and it often involves anger, grief and even hopelessness.

Intentionally build relationships. Part of fostering a trusting relationship is learning about who your students are and not making assumptions about them. For example, when a student asks, “What’s going to be on the exam?” you might assume that the student is not interested in learning and wants an easy way to get an A. Instead, consider what else is on that student’s plate and all the responsibilities they are shouldering. Remind your students that you have their back and that they are part of a learning community. Develop a buddy system where students check on each other and support each other in their learning.

Wonder together. Part of processing our feelings and getting to the point where we hope is to wonder and imagine a more interconnected, just and humane reality. Community is powerful, and in this time of isolation, students need a place where they feel heard and valued. For instance, invite your students to identify a social problem that matters to them and connects to the course, and then discuss what progress would look like on that issue.

Center and model hope. Offer students examples of how you find hope in your daily life. Remember that hope is abstract; we can make it more concrete with real-life stories and examples. Consider an activity where you and your students engage in hope-scrolling -- look for examples that highlight the generosity of the human spirit. Ask your students to document hope. What makes them feel hopeful and energized to act? Invite them to share with the class their concrete examples of what they are hopeful about and how that connects to the future.

Celebrate the journey. Remind your students that as long as we are alive, we can make things better for others and ourselves, and the sweetness of the journey is something we can and should celebrate. One way to impart that sentiment is the way you approach assessments in your courses. For example, remind your students that learning is a journey and that assessment is a way to evaluate our understanding and improve our learning. A failing grade is a transitory setback and an opportunity to grow.

Last December, when I learned about Trump’s presidential pardon of the Nisour Square perpetrators, my immediate reaction was similar to the one I had in 2007. I recalled the trauma and the heartbreak of that 2007 event and the deafening silence of the world. I felt the same hopelessness I experienced when I first learned about the murders, except the despair felt even more potent now than it did in 2007.

Nevertheless, I quickly remembered that despair is a luxury I can’t afford, because this incident is not just about me. It's about justice. It’s about telling a story of innocent lives lost. As in 2007, when I was on the edge of hopelessness, the 2020 pardon sent me to that edge. Yet it was again the people, the spirits of the dead, that implored me to hold on to hope. In both cases, 2007 and 2020, when I was on the verge of hopelessness, forces outside of me -- community, love and justice -- helped bring me back. May we be those forces for our students.

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Mays Imad (@lrningsanctuary) is a neuroscientist and the founding coordinator of the teaching and learning center at Pima Community College. She teaches biomedical ethics and pathophysiology and studies stress and emotions and their effect on students’ learning.

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