Managing the Tension Between Hope and Realism

You’ll need a clutch pedal.

Posted Apr 09, 2019

Be optimistic; be realistic – people claim both as absolute virtues. Trouble is, there are times when realism is not optimistic and optimism is not realistic. When they conflict, something’s got to give.

People who don’t see the potential for conflict assume they should be able to be realistic and optimistic always. They’ll give you a hard time for falling short on either. “Let the most realistic interpretation win, and it damn well better be hopeful!”

They’ll also tend not to notice when they fall short on either one. They’ll shun realism because it dashes hope and they’ll pretend that their hopes are realistic saying things that amount to,  “I ignore the news because it’s too depressing and besides my hopes are more realistic than the news.”

They’ll also change the subject from what’s true to what’s hopeful without noticing:

Is climate change real? (A question about what’s real).
“I certainly hope not!” (An answer about hopes).

Is it possible that you’re being a little racist? (A question about what’s real).
“I hope not. I don’t want to be.” (An answer about hopes).

People often make things harder than they have to be by pretending that they’re easier than they can be.

To manage the tension between hope and realism we need a clutch pedal so we can be realistic without our hopes always jerked up and down for the ride resulting in a strong hopeful bias against realistic assessments. With your clutch pedal, engage hope with realism sometimes but not so completely that your hopes jerk you up and down with every bit of realism.

To survive and thrive we want realistic hopes and hopeful realism. For that, we want our hopes well-calibrated to possibilities, which calls for careful expectation management.

There are alternatives strategies, which I’ll argue don’t work.  Buddhist sometimes say abandon all expectation since they cause suffering. Having no expectations is impossible for all but non-functioning schizophrenics. This Buddhist teaching is self-contradictory: Commit yourself to flexibility. If you have no expectations you can expect to have no suffering.

Others imply that contentment comes from having expectations perfectly calibrated to exactly what you can expect so you’re perfectly immune to both delightful surprises and disappointments. For example, there’s an old Hebrew saying: Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion,” as though any of us could be perfectly satisfied, no ambition, no stretch, no aspirational gap (the gap between what you aspire to have and what you’ve got).

Criminologists offer a healthy model for managing hope and realism. Their work demands that they remain both hopeful and realistic. They don’t waste energy on angst and outrage at the existence of criminals. They aren’t surprised by criminals' existence. Though they might wish they’d all disappear, they assume criminology will remain important hopeful, realistic work long after they’re retired.

In response to questions about how he stayed optimistic, Obama said, “I don't believe in apocalyptic – until the apocalypse comes. I think nothing is the end of the world until the end of the world.”

Obama had a good clutch pedal. You have to if you’re going to face reality and remain unflinchingly hopeful.