June 22nd, 2006

ozarque figure

Emotional weather; is there a way to construct a Hopefulness Front?

I've been fretting here about what I perceive as a new Hopelessness Front in the emotional weather -- a sort of epidemic of highly contagious hopelessness. And interactiveleaf commented:

"The people I know who feel that way are, in my experience, all suffering from a severe lack of perspective. I, they, we (Americans, mostly) routinely live lives that, according to the standards of the majority of the world's population, make us incredibly wealthy. And I do mean incredibly wealthy. ... There are people in the world who are having bombs dropped on them, who are starving to death, whose only water supply has a good chance of making them ill, who are dying of preventable, untreated diseases -- and I am unsympathetic to those who are despairing because the politcians are crooked. Anyone who's not hungry or in imminent danger of being maliciously maimed while going to work is simply luckier than most. Anyone who thinks that the elections are fixed can be reminded that the stuffed and missing ballot boxes that gave Lyndon Johnson the election still haven't been investigated, the people who are afraid of their debt can be grateful if they still have hot and cold running water on demand, the people who are afraid of today's corrupt and repressive politicians can Google 'Joseph McCarthy' and discover how bad it can really get, and also discover what we've recovered from as a nation. ... Having said all this, I have no idea how to deliver this message to the people who feel hopeless. .... Do you have any suggestions, not so much for what to say to these people, but for how to get the message across en masse?"

This is one of those enormous library-spawning "What Is Truth?" megaquestions; that makes it no less worth discussing. Suppose we say in advance that there are two groups of people struggling with hopelessness that we're going to consider as being outside the limits of the discussion: (a) those who are suffering from an emotional or mental disorder (for example, clinical depression, or bipolar disorder); and (b) those who are feeling hopeless because they are right in the middle of a crisis that all reasonable people would consider major (for example, someone they love has just died, or has been diagnosed with a fatal illness). The first group needs the attention of trained experts; the second group has every reason to feel hopeless and will usually, over time, recover from that hopelessness. The question then is, how do you deliver the message to the rest of the people who are feeling hopeless?

There's a Catch-22 built into this question....

Suppose you say to them, "There are millions of people who are far worse off than you are," followed by a list of the burdens those millions are facing. Bombs. Starvation. No water safe to drink. No medical care at all. Slavery. And all the rest. The difference between the routine complainer and the people in the new Hopelessness Front is that they won't argue with you and start trying to convince you that their problems are just as bad as the ones you listed. The response you're most likely to get is agreement, followed by "And that proves my point. That proves that there's no hope."

The same thing happens if you try to put things into a historical context. You say, "This is just part of a cycle of bad times and good times. It's all happened before, and things got better." Lyndon Johnson. Joseph McCarthy. World War II. The Great Depression. Slavery. And they won't argue with you and start trying to convince you that today's rigged elections are a far more serioius matter than rigged elections in the past. They'll agree with you. They'll say "You're right. Things might get better for a while, but then they'll get worse again. It's always been that way, and it will always be that way. And that proves my point. That proves that there's no hope."

Then what?