Fostering Resilient Hope: Part 1 of 6 (Critical Hope vrs Toxic Positivity)

For the upcoming few postings I invite you to consider a question:   what does it mean to be part of an organization that is marked by a resilient hope and, of course what does it mean to lead in a manner that fosters hope? 

What this assumes, of course, is that hope is an imperative:   there are many key elements to an effective institution; but, a resilient hope is fundamental to the organizational culture.   It is essential.   And it means that effective leaders know how to cultivate this hopefulness. 

The assumption is rather straightforward:   every organization goes through set-back — crises, challenges, unforeseen developments.   Whether it is financial stress or a significant personnel transitions or dreams and aspirations that did not materialize.   Or, as is the case I write these words, a pandemic that struck so quickly and upset the normal routines and created so much uncertainty.   And very simply, the organization will only survive and actually thrive if there is a resilient disposition that is best and most simply described as hopefulness.   This will be evident in two ways in particular.  On the one hand, a sense of well-being that is evident that this is where people want to be.   If it is a university, they want to work here and study here.   If it is a church, they want to be part of this congregation and be part of its future.   They look, in other words, to the future. 

But second, not only is there an inclination to be part of this organization another key mark of resilient hope is that the organization can adapt and adjust and as innovate.   Rather than despair there is hope, which means that they are looking for how to come out of the discouraging developments in a way that keeps the organization on task, on mission.   Hopefulness, in other words, is not merely about good feelings or sentiment; it is productive and fruitful.

All of that leads to this crucial and essential observation.   We need to make a distinction that makes all the difference in the world.   Hope and encouragement are always offered against the backdrop of realism – naming reality, however dark or difficult or depressing.   In a June 2020 article in the Canadian journal for higher education – University Affairs – Jessica Riddell, English professor at Bishop’s University in Quebec, Canada, makes the helpful distinction between what she calls “toxic positivity” and “critical hope.”  By toxic positivity she means something that I fear plagues the religious communities of which so many of us are a part:  pseudo assurances that everything will be fine, that “God is in control”, that if we just hang in there and get along, all will be well in the end.  Or  some variation of “everything happens for a reason.”   She actually speaks of toxic positivity as a power structure, a social system that in effect does not allow for disagreement or discontent or uncomfortable conversations.  And, I would add, does not allow for anger. 

Speaking hope is not about maudlin assurances.   It is not about feel-good false comfort.  Rather, it is about speaking to the possibilities of grace very specifically against and within the darkness and fragmentation of our lives and our work.   And this means that we need to be able to speak of the darkness and rage against the night.   A parent can only encourage a child if and as they have heard all about the bully or the deep shame of walking home from school with what they feel is an unfair report card.   We can only encourage and bring hope if and as we feel the pain of someone else’s loss.  And we can only live in hope if and as we learn what it means to lament:   to feel the full force of our own losses or setbacks.

Thus, for example, church communities that are vital centers of a resilient hope are not those that only sing happy songs and default to inspirational stories as the “sermon” for that Sunday.  Rather. They are congregations that know how to name and feel the pain of the world and the pain of their members.   It is this posture of lament that is the necessary backdrop to renewed hope.  

Thus first and this point cannot be stressed enough:   organizations that are marked by a resilient hope have the capacity and indeed the insistence to name reality and, more, they feel that reality when it is marked by difficulty and challenge.  They acknowledge disappointment, anger and frustration.   And leaders of these organization are not afraid of this kind of honest expression of discouragement.  They have the emotional capacity to hear the frustration and the anger of those who are feeling loss or that they have been let down. 

Encouragement is always and only authentic encouragement when it is offered against the backdrop of lament.

Side note:   the best education on what it means to speak hope against the backdrop of lament is to read and re-read the Old Testament Psalms.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.