In the outlook for this New Year, the possibilities can be scary. So I’m resolving this year to hope. 2022 is going to be another dreary political year. The pandemic is bad enough, but the arguments about it are even more off-putting. The climate is convulsive, and worrying.

So, I believe in hope.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
 Man never Is, but always To be blest.”

This is from the great English poet of the 18th century, Alexander Pope in his “Essay on Man.” He is the master of the couplet verse who also gave us the useful line, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring” – kind of a red flag about that “do your own research” business.

“Hope springs eternal” looks optimistic, but on a closer read, it’s more complicated. The next line betrays a tension, if not disappointment: man never is blessed, but is always waiting upon getting blessed.

Alexander Pope is the kind of guy that strikes you as being quite sure that he knows everything better than you. He’s the one who goes about announcing that good news is too good to be true, that the other shoe is about to drop, so don’t get your hopes up. In a letter to his friend John Gay, in 1727, he announced his invention of a new “Ninth Beatitude:” “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Obviously, I disagree. For one thing, Pope’s beatitude doesn’t square with the other eight (which come from a much more reliable source).

For another thing, hope is something that we can’t do without. Poets and prophets, psychologists and politicians, tell us that hope is necessary. One simply goes downhill without it.

In a 2001 study of older Americans who took a survey between 1992 and 1996, 29 percent of those who were “hopeless” (based on their survey answers) had died by 1999, versus 11 percent of those who were “hopeful.”

Worse, hopelessness is contagious, like a spiritual virus. One of the worst things adults can do to children is to train them up in an atmosphere of pessimism, cynicism and despair.

Of course, it doesn’t do to play Pollyanna. I thought the eponymous 1960 Disney flick was charming, to be sure (I had a schoolboy crush on Hayley Mills). But it isn’t realistic, nor is it rational. The “Polyanna attitude” is more attitude and much less substance. In some versions of optimism and positive thinking, there’s really no reason to be optimistic, as it seems that neither reason nor reality is important at all.

Hope, rather, is eminently rational. It is based on truth, even though the truth might not be so obvious at the moment.

For now, let’s make a distinction between hope and optimism.

In one 2004 paper in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, two psychologists used survey data to suss out the two terms. They concluded that “hope focuses more directly on the personal attainment of specific goals, whereas optimism focuses more broadly on the expected quality of future outcomes in general.”

In other words, “optimism” is the fuzzy notion that things will be okay. “Hope” doesn’t make assumptions, but is rather a conviction that one can act to make things better in some way.

Optimism might actually be something of an inborn disposition, the way one’s neurochemical and limbic system is pre-arranged. Perhaps this was why Pollyanna was so Pollyanna-ish.

But hope is something you choose to do, as a matter of free thinking, feeling, and acting. It is something that even the most Eeyore of us can actually become, and do quite nicely at.

Optimism, in this sense, is like being happy with a participation trophy in the game of life, where one’s self-esteem is based on you just being you. Hope is an achievement that is its own reward, based on your infinite worth as a human and your own competency that you gained by hard work.

Hope is a deeper and more spiritual joy and peace. Optimism is cheerfulness – which, to be sure, is important. We could all do with a lot more cheer in the house. But hope can persist and prevail, even when outside, things are bleak.

So. This year, it’s hard for me to be optimistic about politics, the pandemic and the environment. But, I’m hopeful. I’ll study and teach and write. I’ll work in my garden and weed at the Cupola House (I think I passed my Master Gardener exam). I’ll sing with the Albemarle Chorale.

And I’ll pray. A lot.

Because I believe in hope.

Jonathan Tobias is a resident of Edenton and can be reached via email at janotec77@gmail.com.

Thadd White can be reached via email at twhite@apgenc.com.