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Finding hope in troubled times

21 minutes


Lenore Manderson

Professor of Medical Anthropology
University of the Witwatersrand

Episode Notes

What helped you find hope this past year or two? Was it a person, a hobby, or something else? In the final episode of Season 4, we explore where individuals look to keep hope alive in their toughest times. With insights from our expert guest, Professor Lenore Manderson, we also consider areas where Australia has stripped some people of the right to be hopeful.

Ginger Gorman  00:00

I remember last year on December 31st as 2020 due to an end and the air was thick with hope. I know that I felt a sense of light at the end of the tunnel. And I’d certainly become closer to my neighbours than I’d ever been before. Of course, the pandemic wasn’t suddenly about to come to an end, just because we’re all putting up our 2021 calendars.

But imagining a better future in the New Year presented us with hope. And being hopeful is necessary to survive.

Professor Lenore Manderson  00:36

If we had no hope, we wouldn’t be talking because what’s the point? And I think what harnessing hope is about is we can make changes to reverse this, we cannot let the hopelessness of what is happening, continue to drive us forward.

Ginger Gorman  00:55

Lenore Manderson is a distinguished professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. She’s also a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

So what does hope do for you, in your darkest moments, when you need something good to cling to? What gives you hope?

Case study – 01:19

I have been drawing every single day since February 2020. Through my darkest days, you know, the pandemic, a death in the family, illness, crying at my drawing board, I have drawn every single day, it makes me feel like a light turning on in an old house.

Ginger Gorman  01:38

Yep, creativity is wonderful fodder for hope. I know myself, in my darkest moments, the first thing I want to do is go and plant seedlings in my garden, for example. And why do you think so many of us baked our way through 2020? Me included. Love, of course, is another great source of hope.

Case study – 02:01

We’ve had two sons. We’ve had friends and relatives, who died, who have committed suicide, who have, you know, leukemia, and all of those sorts of things. And these are the moments when you know that you can fall into the arms of another one, and they’ll hold you up.

Ginger Gorman  02:25

And of course, hope can come to us in times when we expect to have none. Despite needing it more than ever.

Case study – 02:32

Having a rare cancer means that every day I’m reminded of my own mortality, despite the bad news of receiving an advanced cancer diagnosis. I’ve had an amazing cardiothoracic surgeon who’s operated on me twice. And in those two occasions has saved my life. Their treatment and encouragement provides me with hope that I’ll be with my family for much longer.

Ginger Gorman  02:57

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. And on the pod today when times are tough, desperate or dire, how do people find hope?

Ginger Gorman

So what is hope?

Professor Lenore Manderson  03:25

Hope is an emotion but it’s an aspiration. It’s a feeling. And it’s a source of inspiration and direction. So I think it’s both cognitive and effective. You feel it, but it actually does more than that. It’s not just the feeling, it is around how you imagine a future and it motivates then what you do.

Ginger Gorman  03:51

Lenore’s work has taken it everywhere from South Africa to the Philippines to China. She has seen firsthand the impacts of oppressive, brutal and racist regimes, and seeing all that, it wouldn’t be hard to succumb to hopelessness.

Professor Lenore Manderson  04:09

Many years ago, like at least 30 years ago, I was working in both China and the Philippines. And at that point, China was a particularly hopeful, inspiring place. It was after the Tiananmen Square. People were feeling under threat, but there was still a sense of a future.

And I really felt that I was in a country that would have powerful impact on the world in the 21st century. It felt like I was in the 21st century, though I was in the late 20th century.

I mean, I would never have anticipated what was going on now. But it was this sense of optimism and excitement.

I went from China to the Philippines and I was doing work in village Philippines; work on respiratory infection and diarrheal disease and the poverty in rural Philippines then, and I think still now, was really shocking.

And there was a government that was strongly supported by the US that had had all of that investment from the US as a colonial state through much of the 20th century and had a lot of input from the United Nations instrument UNDP and Asian Development Bank and World Health Organization. And it was so poor, and it was so corrupt, and the gaps between rich and poor was so shocking.

And I just had this terrible moment of complete powerlessness, and loss of hope, like, what was the point of me doing anything? Would there ever be a way to have any impact in this society? I was simply one of 1000s of people involved in work around health and development. I came back really questioning what I was doing at all, as an academic.

And then it struck me that I personally, of course, couldn’t change the Philippines. And I couldn’t change a village and donating my salary to support one village in the Philippines, which was kind of a, you know, a two-second idea was not going to change a whole country.

But what I could do, which is what I do, was work with people who were then in the Philippines, from the Philippines, who were able to effect change at all levels, within administration, within healthcare systems, within NGOs, and so on. And if that was all I could do, to inspire and support, and to train people who worked on the ground that was good enough.

Ginger Gorman  06:48

I spent a lot of time in the Philippines actually Lenore and I really relate to what you’re saying, seeing such a bright and wonderful people, so many of them in such desperate poverty without the basic needs of life.

Do you consider that choice you made in respect to the Philippines and then your future career, choosing hope over perhaps hopelessness?

Professor Lenore Manderson  07:12

I think that if I, if I took a line of hopelessness, and occasionally anyone feels very hopeless about certain things. And maybe that’s the flip side that if you’re, for the most part, optimistic, or simply believe in what you’re doing, then there is a flip side to it. And no one has an emotional intellectual life that is completely smooth and does not have ups and downs.

But I think what it did was give me a sense of what I valued and that other people valued in me, that kept me going.

Ginger Gorman  07:48

You’ve got a really interesting view about clinical depression and where hope fits in there. What can you tell me about that?

Professor Lenore Manderson  07:58

I think that the hallmark feeling in depression is hopelessness. That that’s characterised as everything. It’s not the sadness of itself. It’s the fact that there is no point. And the sense of there being no point is “there is no hope”. And that’s like, a hope for yourself: like, it doesn’t matter if you’re alive or dead. It doesn’t matter where you are, or what you do.

And I think in a broader sense, now it also infuses how people are thinking about the world. And I mean, I’ve just been reading, as in last night, Delia Falconers book, Signs and Wonders, and the first essay in Sounds and Wonder, is profoundly disturbing and depressing.

Like, you know, after you’ve read enough about Bogong moths disappearing, and frogs dying and everything else, I mean, you do feel hopeless. And the question is, how do we balance that? And what is it that those of us who are not overwhelmed by the moment can do that continues to invest in the future? And takes advantage of our own personal sense of hope that we can make an impact and we can make change?

Ginger Gorman  09:15

If you’re saying that the counterpoint to depression is a sense of hope, then where does the idea of happiness fit in there for you, if it does at all?

Professor Lenore Manderson  09:27

Happiness is something that happens now and again, but I don’t think people are motivated intellectually or through their labor in any way by being happy, and happiness is a very inward type thing.

I might feel happy, but my feeling happy does not make anyone else feel happy. It’s not an enduring propeller for how we act and how we see the future. Whereas hope is.

The difference I suppose is that, you know, I’m much influenced, and although not as a motivator, but as a reinforcer to how I feel, by philosophies like Levinias – my responsibility for the stranger  – or in Africa the very much quoted or over quoted idea of Ubuntu that “I am who, through other people”, and happiness doesn’t have that kind of tie to others.

And also, it would be naive, I think, to assume that just because one is happy at one moment, you know, that one ought to be perpetually happy. I mean, I think that there is a richness in human emotional life, where happiness is only a fragment of it. And I mean, what kind of person would we be if something terribly sad happens and we say, “Oh, well, I’m happy.”

That’s about throwing away one’s own responsibility to the other. And, and so the pursuit of happiness is an entirely egocentric action.

Ginger Gorman  11:11

But isn’t it interesting that there’s whole industries and self help books and chat shows, and on and on and on, we go around finding happiness? Whereas what I’m hearing you saying is, it’s actually hope we need to find to get us through the tough stuff and not this ethereal kind of idea of happiness.

Professor Lenore Manderson  11:32

Totally. And I think that what is challenging us all, globally, at present, is the challenges around being hopeful and finding hope and being able to move –  now that’s at every single level. And so in South Africa, what has always amazed me, has been people’s investment in the country, which is a statement of hope.

Despite a history of the most brutal racism, institutionalised with apartheid. And despite the fact that still this is one of the most unequal countries in the world. People don’t walk around bemoaning the challenges, for the most part, though they’re ever present.

And there’s an enormous honesty about what’s happening.

The honesty, I think, is part of what it means to be hopeful – that you can actually say what’s wrong, what you don’t like, what deeply troubles you and talk about it with other people and begin to problem solve.

It allows you to apprehend the possibility of change. So, then it is around finding a way to think through, “How do each one of us individually play a role in keeping that hope that there is a future alive?”

Ginger Gorman  12:54 (Promotion for Academy symposium)

I’ve just learned so much since doing this podcast, including just how busy my guests are. Regular listeners will know, we interview some of the top social scientists from across Australia. The folks who spend their careers looking for solutions to some of the biggest challenges that our society is facing. Getting time in their calendars is hard, even one at a time. So imagine my delight when I heard that on the 22nd to the 23rd of November, 50 of them will be in the same room. Not a real room, naturally, an online room, but still. For two days. Seriously Social’s host, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia will host its annual symposium with talks, discussions and more. From 50, yep, 50 of our top social scientists. What’s more, you can attend and it is free. Just head to and register for your free ticket. Okay, now back to the show.

14:00 – Case study (Kat)

Hey, Ginger, it’s Kat here. You asked me about what gave me hope. And when I was thinking about it, I was remembering a period of my life in 2013 when I was living on my own in Sydney. I was in an abusive relationship in 2013. And he ended but when it ended, I had also just lost a baby. I remember I just couldn’t get out of bed. I’d quit my job. I just didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was in a constant state of fight or flight and panic as I was trying to recover from all the events that had taken place over a two-week period. And I had my little rescue cat Harley. He was the light of my life – he still is. And even though I was a complete shell of a person who was absolutely unable to function in any aspect of my life, I knew that cat needed me to feed him. He needed me to get up and give him food. He needed me to care for him. And in return, he loved me absolutely unconditionally.

It was that small act of service, of knowing that something was relying on me to help. That in turn stopped being something I had to mechanically do, but it was something that gave me joy to do. And it sparked hope within me that perhaps life wasn’t always going to be that way.

Ginger Gorman  15:35

So what’s the message here? When times are tough, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, summon up some hope and you’ll feel okay? Sure. Except when you don’t, because sometimes you won’t.

Dr. Seuss was right to tell us that sometimes we’d get hung up in a prickly perch and while others fly on, some are left in the lurch.

Australia, sadly, has left a lot of people in a lurch.

Professor Lenore Manderson  16:03

I think where we’ve seen hopelessness, which is the embodiment of real depression, if you like, is with refugees and asylum seekers who fled under enormously problematic circumstances with fear that they had nowhere to go, searching for a place that would give them a sense of a future of any kind. And we, Australia, through the government, denied them that right. And we have consistently stripped people of the right to be hopeful. And I think that is an enormous crime.

The same has been true around climate change in this country, and the most appalling outcome has been watching the way in which corporate bodies, supermarkets and the like, are leading Australia. I mean, who knew capitalism would drag a government into the future? I mean, this is like every irony. Yes. And yes, there’s there’ll be profit centers. But there is the testing of the water.

And the point is that people look for someone ,or multiple people, to play leadership roles, who will point in the direction of ways to continue. And without that kind of thing it’s very hard to feel hope.

Ginger Gorman  17:35

My question is, is it possible to be hopeful even if you can’t imagine how your circumstances can possibly improve?

Professor Lenore Manderson  17:45

When maybe you can? I mean, maybe, I mean, one is always enacting hopefully. You’re always acting with the possibility that things might improve in some way, and they don’t have to improve in some way for you or in some way for the planet: it can be in some way for somebody else.

What depression does, I think real depression, is close off, pull down the blinds and say there is no future, which is why I keep tying in optimism, to some extent, because pessimism says, well, there’s no point. Being optimistic says there is a point – keep going.

But that mean, we don’t live and have never lived with a sense of resolution as stasis. It’s always been around change, and we never know what change is.

So all we can do is take the knowledge we have at the moment and think through “in what ways will this help change for the better that I can imagine now”. But we actually have to take action with what we know.  We can’t say: “Well, I’ll just sit around and hope that someone comes up with a bit of solution in another 20 years when I’m the frog in the saucepan.”

Case study:

Hope, for me, is actually a byproduct of overcoming so many adversities in life in my life that most people wouldn’t even believe. If I was to write my life story down, people will go like “yeah, that didn’t happen”. I grew up in very challenging environment, we were poor, I had, you know, a blended family, substance abuse issues, things like that. The thing that I can remember from my childhood, most of all, was a profound loneliness.

Like, none of the parental figures in my life couldn’t really give a shit about what I did or where I was or how I was doing. But despite that, I’ve always had really good people in my life, really good people around me, my friends parents who fed me, random people here and there, teachers who cared about me. And that has always allowed me to keep moving forward.

My story could have had such a different ending. But I think when I reflect back on my life, I realise there’s always been someone to support me. There’s always been someone who’s been there for me. And, you know, you can’t help but be hopeful. There’s just this this profound understanding that people are actually good. People people want to help out others, and they’re willing to lend a hand when you need it. And that is what I think what keeps me personally goin.g

Ginger Gorman  20:25

Thanks for listening to Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman and I hope you have a great summer.

That’s a wrap on another season of Seriously Social but I will be back next year with more from the world of the social sciences.

Remember, we’ve got a big old back catalogue if you’re looking for some summer listening.

Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester and engineered by Mark Gardeldonk aka Baldy, and it is executive produced by Sue White and Bonnie Johnson. It’s an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Thanks for your support this season. See you next year.

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