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Snapshots of Hope, Part Two: Trapped in a Box

The ancient Greeks had the benefit of blaming their downfalls on their pantheon of fickle, often vengeful, gods. But modern societies are reaping that which we have sewn.

Brandy Betz

According to Greek mythology, Pandora’s curiosity unleashed upon the world a plague of miseries. Her attempts to minimize the damage by shutting the lid trapped something in the box: Elpis, or hope. There is debate as to why hope would have been present in such a package. Was it meant as another misery or a means of relief to a beleaguered world? Today, 1300 years after Hesiod’s documentation of the story of Pandora, the questions of whether hope is friend or foe, and how we can determine its nature, still exist.

The ancient Greeks had the benefit of blaming their downfalls on their pantheon of fickle, often vengeful, gods. But modern societies are reaping that which we have sewn. It took more than one person to build this fire and it will take more than one to extinguish it. Cooperation, however, is usually easier said than done. What motivations would people have to assist others they may not know and might never meet? It could be argued that what benefits one is a benefit to all, but that was probably truer in times when cooperation meant the difference between perishing and survival. The truth is, very few lives are being directly threatened by what’s occurring in Darfur. So, what is the motivation for those not directly affected by an atrocity to lend their assistance?

A team of researchers from Emory University discovered that altruism might just feel good. In 2002, the researchers published a study in the scientific journal Neuron that suggested that the brain’s reward centers are stimulated when altruistic acts are performed. Functional MRI scans were performed on subjects placed in a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma (a behavioral test in which defecting when the other player cooperates yields the greater beneficial outcome). The participants were partnered with a computer and then with another human. Mutual cooperation was the most common outcome among those paired against another human even though it was obviously not the most beneficial choice. The brain’s reward centers were activated only when the participant was teamed with another human, not a computer. If we are in fact hard wired to favor altruism then cooperation, and hope, have some scientific backing.

But there is no evidence that the brain’s reward center is so rushed with positive feelings that everyone who commits one altruistic act is going to keep doing so. It also provides no reason for an initial altruistic act to be made, as the brain wouldn’t yet know of its eventual reward. Altruism might make us feel rewarded but so do sex, money, and drugs. It would take a great deal of naivety to say that mankind is just going to bond together because it will make us feel good. Wars and genocides and astonishing acts of violence will happen and will continue to happen for the entire history of the world. Battles against the world’s miseries will be lost time and again. In the shadow of these losses it will be easy to see hope as another enemy because it carries heavy disappointments and few obvious rewards.

To borrow from Hamlet, to hope or not to hope, that is the question. Is it our friend or our foe? The simple answer is that it is whatever we make it. There is only one way that hope can crush us and that is by our attachment of an expectation. In Disturbing the Peace, Victor Havel said “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” No matter the outcome, the belief that something makes sense in a chaotic and often brutal world might be enough to alleviate some of our burdens and make hope our ally.

Brandy Betz is a Biology student who believes in hope above all things.