Radical Hope and Recovery Initiation

Radical hope—a radiant vision of new possibilities in the face of personal or collective devastation—is the catalytic ingredient at the heart of personal transformations and successful social movements. Such hope has been spread contagiously by charismatic figures like Handsome Lake, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez, to name a few. Radical hope, at a personal level, allows one to rise from the ashes of addiction-related collapse and step into an unknown recovery future.

Psychoanalyst and philosopher Jonathan Lear, in his 2008 book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation recounts the story of the great Crow Chief, Plenty Coups, who guided the Crow nation through an era of utter cultural devastation. In the wake of cataclysmic loss—mass slaughter of the buffalo, epidemic disease, and White intrusion into Crow hunting grounds, all amidst the larger physical and cultural assault on Native tribes, Plenty Coups faced the question of how the Crow people could go on without the values and traditions that had made life meaningful throughout their tribal history. Plenty Coups drew upon an apocalyptic dream to lead the Crow nation into a completely unknown and questionable future. His dream suggested that the Crow would have a future only by emulating the Chickadee figure of Crow mythology whose distinguishing trait was the ability to listen and learn from others. According to Lear, it was this focused capacity to observe, listen, and learn that allowed construction of a new and meaningful life for the Crow people.

Addiction tests our capacity for suffering and our fear that life has no meaning beyond pain and insatiable desire. For many at the brink of extinction—the exhaustion of our personal history and the near-complete destruction of all that we had been and hoped to be, a life without drugs and a life in recovery seemed completely inconceivable. Only a radical form of hope—a hope powerful enough to challenge the formidable objective evidence of a hopeless future—could propel us through the early days and weeks of recovery. That transition often required death of the old self to form the ashes from which a new self can rise. Radical hope, as opposed to false optimism or outright delusion, provided the courage to let go of the past, the momentum to step forward, and the endurance to fully commit to this turbulent journey of personal resurrection. What made this hope radical was its leap into a future beyond one’s capacity to see and understand.

Recovery tests our capacity for healing and forces us to face the fear that a life without our elixir will be filled only with nothingness. Facing that fear requires radical hope bolstered only by the knowledge that others have made this journey before us. Like the Chickadee figure in Crow mythology, what will guide us is the ability to observe, listen, and learn as we move forward into this unknown world of recovery. Through others who have made this journey, we can learn the words, ideas, rituals, and relationships that guide the reconstruction of personal character, personal identity, and daily lifestyle. Some will draw on hidden resources within the self while others draw on powers beyond the self, but rarely is the journey of recovery made in isolation.

The Chickadee figure suggests a “middle ground” between two worlds where one can, through the acts of listening and learning, forge a new way of thinking and being. Various cultures of recovery may provide such a middle ground. Within such a milieu we can construct a new story of our lives—one describing what life was like before one’s metamorphosis, and what life is like now (who and what we are becoming). Central to that new way of life is commitment to a lifelong process of character reconstruction based on a new set of ideals (e.g., honesty, humility, gratitude, forgiveness, tolerance, harmony, and service). Recovery moves beyond removing intoxicants from one’s life to changing one’s identity at a most fundamental level. Embracing the need to do both may be possible only in the presence of radical hope.

Lear suggests that when the Crow people were at their lowest point of impotent grief and rage as a nation, what they most needed was a new poet who could reinterpret Crow beliefs of the past to forge “vibrant new ways for the Crow to live and to be.” Plenty Coups served this role and in doing so opened a path of radical hope for the future. The lowest points of addiction provide similar opportunities, and the collective stories forged across secular, spiritual, and religious pathways of recovery provide both the radical hope and the building blocks through which new ways to live and be become possible.

So what advise does this offer the person at the doorway to recovery? Welcome and embrace radical hope no matter how imperfect its messenger and emulate the Chickadee virtues of observing, listening, and learning from the successes and failures of those around you. As experienced by so many who have gone before you, radical hope can enable your survival and open new ways of living and being.