How Hope Can Trump Fear

This last Saturday at Second Wind we began a new series (“Applying Your  Spirituality To This Week’s Glocal Hot Spot”) in which we’re taking a very current event happening in the world and asking what the story tells us about the journey of spirituality.  How does this event inform and shape our spirituality so that we develop a real-world kind of spirituality, a perspective on faith and the spiritual life that works in real life, that embraces contemporary life in a relevant way.  Saturday we focused on the story unfolding in Chile with the 33 trapped miners which has already broken the record for the number of days miners have been imprisoned underground.   Experts are predicting that it will be at least another 3 months before the men are able to be rescued, provided more collapses don’t take place.  A heartbreaking story, to say the least.

Imagine if you were a family member or one of the miners.  How would you be feeling?  What would keep you alive and hanging on?  Would you hope for a good ending, even if the possibility existed that it might not happen?  Would you allow hope to set you up for a potential catastrophic disappointment?  Does hope work?

The Washington Post last week reported about Jerry Linenger  who was the only American on the Mir space station in 1997 when a small fire caused a crisis that left him isolated in space for four months with two Russian astronauts. Cut off from his family and facing a lot of stress, Linenger endured a period of uncertainty that provides a good parallel to what the 33 Chilean miners are facing.

The initial explosion terrified and galvanized the crew of six. After the fire, the connection between the two modules that made up the space station was cut, leaving Linenger alone with the Russians. Over the next months, the Mir lost its oxygen generator and had serious trouble with the carbon dioxide scrubber. The toilets malfunctioned, and communications broke down. But the worst aspect, Linenger said, was being led to expect something that failed to materialize.

“Expectations unmet are a horrible thing,” Linenger recalled, “especially when you’re already psychologically stressed. The biggest dips for me and the others is when we were told something would happen and it didn’t.”

Among the many examples he could point to, the one that remains raw after 13 years is when he was told he would be able to speak with his pregnant wife at a time when potentially life-threatening problems had begun to mount.  “They said I could talk to her for a short time as we passed over a ground antenna near Moscow,” he remembered, “and I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was static. And then another emergency started and we were cut off entirely. After that, I expected nothing and was psychologically more healthy.”

What do you make of Linenger’s conclusion?  Is it healthier to simply not hope, to not have expectations, in order to prevent disappointment?

Though I can appreciate the need to try to minimize emotional pain from loss and grief (I’ve gone through this many times myself), the truth is that according to recent neuroscience about brain formation and function, hope is one of the most significant brain functions to not only taking away fear but also to producing profound life transformation.

As we know, our brains were originally wired for fear responses – it was to protect humans from being gobbled up by predators – it’s the basis for the fight or flight response.  And according to recent research, fear is so wired into our brains that the brain actually “senses” fear-producing stimuli even at an unconscious level (before we recognize it).  When something dangerous occurs outside of awareness, the conscious brain reacts to it.  In other words, as experts are telling us, your brain prepares you to respond to danger faster than it does to other tasks, and it starts to respond to frightening things before you even realize they are frightening.

And unless this wiring tendency is proactively dealt with, fear always trumps everything.  And when we live in fear, our stress levels stay heightened, causing us to live on increased cortisol which keeps our physical and emotional systems over-stimulated and thereby more susceptible to disease and deterioration.

I’m reading a book right now written by Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program and the Panic Disorders Research Program in the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital.  Dr. Pillay is writing about the recent neuroscience findings about the brain and fear and how to overcome the tendency to be paralyzed from from fear:  Life Unlocked:  7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.

He says that hope is the choice to make the assumption that something is possible.  Instead of allowing the facts to justify fear, we use hope to reveal new facts and remove the fears.  This is precisely what people like former South African president Nelson Mandella, world-class athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, and countless others have done every day.  Rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.

According to brain science discoveries, hope and fear both wander around in the unconscious parts of our brains.  They both require amygdala activation, and whichever one is stronger will win the amygdala for its own use (the amgydala is the almond-shaped part of the brain, a mass of nerve cell bodies, designed to be the danger alert system, “the guard dog of the human brain.”  “It’s so powerful and efficient that it alerts us to danger in our environment within tens of milliseconds of detecting it.”).

Dr. Pillay’s point is this:  “To be processed by the amygdala, emotions have to stand in a queue, with their order determined by their strength – the strongest soldier gets to the front of the line.  If fear is strongest, then it will grab the amygdala’s power and dominate all the other soldiers in the line.  If hope is stronger, then it will be preferentially processed over fear … So we have to develop a strategy to help hope ‘bulk up’ and have an intelligence that supersedes the intelligence of fear.  This isn’t easy because, as we’ve learned, our brains are structured so that the amygdala processes fear first in order to protect us from danger.”  (p. 52-3)

This certainly explains why it’s easier for us to give in to the impulse of fear instead of building hope.  But it also explains why it’s so important for us to choose hope, to give intentional attention to hope and what it is we’re hoping for.  Regularly imagining the state of life that hope is directed to.  Those specific activities build up our hope response.  And when we hope, says Dr. Pillay, we stimulate out brain center (amygdala) to use its mass of nerve pathways to empower our bodies to act in harmony with that hope instead of short-circuiting it with fear.

Hope isn’t a naive, feel-good fantasy approach to life.  It’s central to using our brain structure to facilitate positive, profound life transformation.  We do need fear, too.  We need to feel fear to keep us from dangerous situations – we need the fight or flight response for survival.  But we can’t live there – we end up destroying our systems if we do.  So we must “bulk up” hope.  We must choose to imagine what we truly want our lives to become.  We must spend time directing our attention to that picture.  We must allow our emotional, rational, physiological systems to mobilize us toward that preferred future.

No wonder many of the sacred scriptures of the great faith traditions talk about hope and setting our minds and hearts on the object of our hope.  “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Confidence.  Assurance.  And the rest of that chapter describes how those qualities lead to dramatic and transforming action.  Maintaining that kind of hope is what empowers us to take necessary steps to bring it into reality.

It’s significant that all the families of the 33 trapped Chilean miners are staying on the mining site in a tent village that they’re calling Camp Hope.  They are choosing to stay focused and to embrace hope.  Like Elizabeth Segovia, the wife of one of the trapped miners (reported by CNN).  The day before the tragic mine collapse, she received a piece of great news – she was pregnant with a girl – an ultrasound had confirmed it.  The next day, her world collapsed.  She cried and cried.  As the weeks went by, she found herself talking to her baby girl inside her, “Daddy’s okay?  Daddy’s okay!  It’s going to be alright!”

Last Thursday, Segovia got a handwritten letter from her husband Ticona proposing they name their daughter Esperanza Elizabeth — esperanza is Spanish for hope.  “First, because we never lost hope,” she said, and “second, because it’s the name of the camp where the families are living; and third, because the 33 miners never lost hope either.”

With her daughter due to arrive in less than two weeks, and her husband due to arrive in perhaps four months, Segovia plans to make a video of the birth to ensure he doesn’t miss it altogether.  “We have to record the birth in great detail, as well as everything that happens to my baby day by day so we can show him,” she said.

What do you need to hope for in your life?  What is your preferred future?  What do you need to hang on to in order to stimulate your brain center into powerful action?  Where are you most fearful?  Is your fear paralyzing you?  Can renewed hope in you create new facts to bolster that hope and bring transformation?  Esperanza.  Hope. Best to hang on to it!

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