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Receptivity and offering: Reasonable hope

Lynne Baab • Thursday January 27 2022

Receptivity and offering: Reasonable hope

Back in 2013 I attended a seminar about mind-body connections, and I learned the significance of the words we use out loud or in our thoughts and prayers. According to the leader of the seminar, when I pray, “God help me with my anxiety,” or when I refer to anxiety in a conversation, I reinforce the neural pathways related to anxiety. Talking about my desire as “freedom from anxiety” has the unintended consequence of lighting up neurons related to anxiety. When I pray, “God give me peace,” I reinforce brain pathways related to peace, and these life-giving neural pathways are beneficial to me and to others.

I have mentioned before that hyper-optimism in my family of origin was highly toxic to me, and I developed a commitment to honesty about how I was feeling. The 2013 seminar was truly mind-blowing because I had to try to integrate my commitment to honesty with my desire to live in a way that embraces God’s shalom. I came to realize that “God, I need your peace” is just as honest as “God, I feel anxious right now.”

Last week I came across an article about the way that the words we say change the structure of our brain. I posted the article on Facebook and asked the question: “When does choosing positive language flip over into toxic positivity and denial?” Numerous people responded.

One of my friends mentioned her son’s treatment for a head injury. The neurologist told the family to inquire, “How is your recovery today?” rather than asking how his head pain is today. A spiritual director and former prison chaplain talked about her pleasure in honesty and her dislike of “dishonest words coated in sugar.” She said she listens for people’s “hidden story, or the more hopeful story, that could be called positive.” She desires to help each person bring those stories to the surface.  Another friend talked about the solace of having someone be present with you in pain, without “feeding delusions, false hopes and fears.” She mentioned the term “reasonable hope,” which seems to be a lovely contrast to delusions and false hope.

One of my friends lives in Oregon where a huge forest fire swept through 18 months ago and burned her house to the ground. She wrote: “As one who fairly recently experienced a devastating event, I had choices of how to live with it. I have the option to be angry, to blame others (and certainly there are many who are blaming government officials for more than what they might be culpable for) and be bitter. But . . . will that bring back my burned out house and all of the ‘stuff’ that burned up? No. Was it my fault? No. Did God smite me? No. Was it the governor's fault? No. So what is my response? To be thankful for what I have – family, a view of our river (although it looks quite a bit different with so much green gone), and to truly understand what it is to store up riches in heaven where moths and rust cannot destroy. I see other people in my area who are angry and bitter and soooo sad, but I can't live there. I feel fleeting sadness when I think of some possessions that I lost (that were received in special times or were from past generations) but in the end, they were just things. People have said that they admire my attitude – but I really am grateful for what I have, who I know, and that God walks with me through difficult times. I guess if I denied any sadness, it might slip over to toxic positivity.”

I hear “reasonable hope” in her words, a term coined by psychologist Kaethe Weingarten. She writes that “reasonable hope’s objective is the process of making sense of what exists now in the belief that this prepares us to meet what lies ahead.” She describes reasonable hope as a practice, a way of affirming that we have influence on future events even while we also know the future is uncertain. Reasonable hope accommodates doubt, contradictions and despair. This term helps me make sense of my journey. I had to learn that dwelling in negativity (because it’s honest!) is not the best reaction to toxic optimism. Reasonable hope is an equally honest response, because God is still at work in our world, and reasonable hope is so much healthier for my inner being than focusing endlessly on sad and hard emotions.

Reasonable hope is also a good choice in conversations because it benefits others, not just ourselves. Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, describes the ways that our choice of words influences others: 

"The power of words over your biology can span great distances. Right now, I can text the words ‘I love you’ from the United States to my close friend in Belgium, and even though she cannot hear my voice or see my face, I will change her heart rate, her breathing, and her metabolism. Or someone could text something ambiguous to you like, ‘Is your door locked?’ and odds are that it would affect your nervous system in an unpleasant way. Your nervous system can be perturbed not only across distances, but also across the centuries. If you've ever taken comfort from ancient texts such as the Bible or the Koran, you've received body-budgeting assistance from people long gone. Books, videos, and podcasts can warm you or give you the chills. These effects might not last long, but research shows that we all can tweak one another's nervous systems quickly with mere words in very physical ways that go beyond what you might suspect." [1]

In 2022, may we offer our words of reasonable hope to God, ourselves and others. May our reasonable hope be based in the love we receive from God.

(Next week: “another world walking beside ours.” Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Manapouri, New Zealand. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below under “subscribe” to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

One strategy for growing in reasonable hope is to hold grief and gratitude in two hands. Check out my new book on that topic.

Another strategy for growing in reasonable hope is to learn to separate thoughts from feelings. Here are the posts I wrote about that how and why to do that: 

[1] Lisa Feldman Barrett, "The Power of Words" on Maria Shriver's blog.



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