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Gordon Livingston, M.D. Headshot

Courage Is Like Love: It Must Have Hope to Nourish It

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"People react to fear, not love -- they don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true." -- Richard Nixon

Hopelessness is the ultimate failure of imagination. The most prosaic form of courage is a willingness to get out of bed each morning and continue our lives. In the face of work that does not inspire us, relationships that have become stale and weighted with failed expectations, a world that little resembles the dreams of our youth, most of us choose to go on. What gives us hope that things will change for the better?

This is the essential issue in psychotherapy (definition: conversation directed at change) and is expressed in a more succinct question with which I confront patients: What's next? We waste a lot of time thinking about the past, or that version of it that we choose to explain the present. I was at a golf driving range recently and was forced to listen to two men in their 60s who had just discovered that they had grown up in the same city. They were caught up in reminiscences about acquaintances, athletic teammates, and various local luminaries whom they both knew when they were young. Woven into the conversation were accounts of their own athletic prowess in high school. The ubiquity of cell phones has made all of us routinely privy to information about the lives of strangers that we could do without, but I was especially struck by the sadness implied in these (augmented) memories of a time when everything seemed possible and football heroes would never be old men practicing a game they could never play well.

We frequently talk about the importance of hope without specifying what it is that we are hoping for. For hope to be genuine it must be realistic; otherwise it is but a dream. Visualize the long lines that form at lottery outlets when the payoff reaches hundreds of millions of dollars. My state lottery has as its motto "You've got to play to win." A more realistic slogan would be "You've got to play to lose." It is obviously hope that impels people to stand in those lines while discussing how they will spend the money. The problem is that this hope is undone by odds that make it unrealistic and cause many to spend money they cannot afford. The hope for miracles also provides fertile ground for those who would sell us cancer cures, effortless weight-loss programs, real estate with no money down, "natural" remedies, untold wealth from Nigeria, or shortcuts to finding the perfect mate. People (other than self-help authors) don't get rich advocating perseverance, loyalty, or years of education. Where's the fun in that?

We are in love with new ideas, the big score, the sudden transformation. We ignore the truth that I have written about elsewhere: Only bad things happen quickly. Why do most kids hate school? Why is the slow acquisition of knowledge "boring"? Why do we appear to have such short historical memories? Why does the stock market, driven by fear and greed, oscillate so wildly and unpredictably, exactly like one's bankroll in a Las Vegas casino? All these things occur because we are distracted from the real purpose of our lives by a dream of effortless success, narrowly defined in our culture as the accumulation of worldly goods. In the face of the greatest disparity between rich and middle-class (not to mention poor) in our history, we now have one of our two major political parties devoted primarily to the interests of our wealthiest citizens. The core concept of capitalism -- that we can all prosper together -- has given way to a kind of societal selfishness that is an invitation to class conflict based on envy and a sense of unfairness. An expression of and outlet for the longing to be rich is the false idea that it could, with a little luck, happen to any of us.

What is lost in such fragile hopes is the concept of pride in our work, the satisfaction that comes with doing our jobs well in the knowledge that we can construct a comfortable, if not extravagant, life as a result of our labors. Stalked by recession, unemployment, home foreclosures, stagnating income, jobs moving overseas, and endless warfare, it is easy to grow angry and cynical. When this anger is redirected at minority groups -- immigrants, gay people, government workers -- we are in danger of becoming fragmented along the lines of race and class, prisoners of our fear that there is not enough to go around and that we must each act in our own economic interest. This is a formula for relinquishing the central idea of the society, interdependence: that we are all in this together and that we will succeed or fail based on our ability to hear heartbeats other than our own. This idea is where our best hopes reside.

If everything that is worthwhile in this life -- education, loving relationships, occupational skill, the development of civic virtue -- requires sustained effort, then who will teach us to let go of the idea of instant gratification? The degree to which we covet the latest electronic gadget bodes ill for this effort. Are the thoughts being shared on a $500 iPhone any more compelling than those we used to write down and put in a mailbox? Have you read anything significant on Twitter recently? How many Facebook friends do you have? How many of them could you count on for help at 3 a.m.?

To face the future with courage we must believe that we have the power, the resolve, the tolerance to contribute to a world that we and our children will want to live in. As a nation we have things of which we can be proud and those of which we ought to be ashamed. To get where we want to go, we must have at least general agreement on where we have been. We need, in other words, to know our history. Our forebears created a system of democratic government that has been a beacon to all who would live in freedom. They also tolerated slavery. We won the wars, hot and cold, against fascism and communism. We also interned our fellow citizens based on their race. We think of ourselves as peace-loving while spending more on, and using, our military than all other nations combined. We elected a black president but discrimination against others for inborn circumstances like race, sexual orientation, and national origin persists. We may be "exceptional" but, like all humans, we are fallible and given to the conceit of those who have easier lives than most of mankind.

In my work I sell hope in individual doses. I listen to people's stories, question their fundamental beliefs about themselves, and try to help them identify and change those parts of their lives that are keeping them from being happy or fulfilled. My view of how people in groups see themselves and each other is informed by my belief that much of what we think we know is untrue and most of our behavior is driven by desires and motives of which we are only dimly aware. I also believe that insight, generosity, and tolerance are not inborn traits and can be taught. We just have to identify those among us who are qualified to lead and teach us. They must be intelligent and devoted to the principles of kindness and hope. If, instead, we elevate those who are stupid or arrogant (or both) we will then get the future we deserve.

For more by Gordon Livingston, M.D., click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

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