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The Power of Hope

By Tia De Nora, author of Hope: The Dream We Carry

At the time of writing this blog, the news is replete with suffering. The atrocities of war, people needing to part from loved ones, homes and belongings, identities, security, comfort, foreseeable futures. The pandemic furthers uncertainty, insecurity, economic hardship, a strained health service, avoidable deaths. Loneliness, already of pandemic proportions before 2020, abounds. The future of our planet is threatened. Young people are no longer sure of the climate emergencies that may lie in store. There are, in short, perfectly good reasons to feel despair. And that might also be no bad thing because despair is the underside of hope; from the depths of despair the shoots of hope can be sown and grown, and it is against the shadow of despair that they are often easiest to see.

Hope: The Dream We Carry takes inspiration from a famous Norwegian poem by Olav H. Hauge (Det Er Den Draummen). Hauge describes the dream as, ‘something wonderful’ that, ‘will happen’, that, ‘must happen’. This attitude is hope’s starting point. Hope is not an emotion but an activity. It is the set of actions devoted to carrying - bearing, protecting, projecting, sharing, and realising - dreams. Propelled by dreams, hope supports individual and collective attempts to effect change - in ourselves and our worlds.

In my current research I am part of the Care for Music project where I collaborate with researchers in the UK (Gary Ansdell) and Norway (Wolfgang Schmid, Randi Rolvsjord). The project considers musical activity in late and end of life. One of the people we have had the privilege to know there is Mia…

Mia is in bed, at the hospice. She is very near the end of life now... What can Mia hope for?

Wolfgang visits her at the hospice. He brings his precious kantele, a small instrument. It is portable, quiet, easy to strum.

Mia finds the kantele interesting. Wolfgang offers to loan it to her for the weekend.

She experiments with the instrument and composes a song which, later, she performs for her brothers. They record her performance on a smartphone …

Because of this small series of actions, which in fact is actually huge (considering Mia’s situation), many things change. The atmosphere of the room changes. The relationship, between Mia and her brothers, changes. Mia changes. She is fatally ill but able to make something for her brothers, active, learning, doing new things.

One of the things Mia has done is to shape the way she will be remembered. She might be too weak to get out of bed but still strong enough to do this one small – but in fact actually huge – thing. She is strong enough to help others to be strong also.

Mia has hope in every moment of this process: hope to be able to play the kantele, to compose a song, to perform that song, to stay connected to her family. Mia’s hope for the future is converted into action. It has enabled her to put her subtle imprint on the present as it blends into, and colours, that future.

Mia’s actions show us what hope is, and what hope is not. Nietzsche once said hope was the worst evil – a torment, tantalising. Grete Thunberg suggests that we should not hope, but panic - as a catapult to activism. Others suggest that hope is identical with blind optimism, a panacea, a distraction or, worse, an orientation prey to manipulation by unscrupulous others who fail to share our interests. We need, we are warned, to be careful for what we hope for.

But Mia’s hope exemplifies realistic hoping. Mia did not hope for a miracle. Instead, and accepting the inevitable, she hoped to find a way of making some features of the inevitable evitable – the sense of loss, isolation, and estrangement that often accompany end-of-life. Mia achieved that aim, in a manner she could manage, with resources she could locate, and with support from others. Her suffering, her family’s suffering did not disappear. It became more bearable and more sharable, in part, because Mia hoped wisely.

In Norwegian, there is a saying that hope ‘is light green’. That captures the sense of hope as new growth, both vulnerable and powerful. To hope is to possess a resourceful orientation. When we have hope and, as Mia did, a dream, we generate energy. We contemplate how we might make even just a small change, then another, then another so that, if we pause to look back, we may find the terrain has changed dramatically. Hope helps us to dream about, and make, our futures; when we hope we are carrying the dream. Hope is therefore a vital ingredient of empowerment, mental health and wellbeing. Hope is integral to the changes we pursue within our circumstances and our worlds.

Tia De Nora is Professor of Music Sociology at the University of Exeter, Professor II in Music Therapy at the Grieg Academy, University of Bergen (GAMUT), and a PhD Associate at Nordoff Robbins London, UK. She is an elected Fellow of the British Academy and a member of its sections on Sociology, Demography, and Statistics and Music and Art History. Her book Hope: The Dream We Carry was published by Palgrave Macmillan in April 2021.