Emma Pleeging (1988) sees herself as a pessimistically hopeful person. For the past four years, she has been studying the subject of hope – which is about what you want to happen, whilst being aware that the future is uncertain. “Although at a global level I find it hard to be optimistic about things such as climate change, growing inequality and polarisation, I remain hopeful. The future has not yet been decided. We can still do something about it.” At the end of September, she received her PhD at the Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management on the subject.
Number of books per year: “A lot. I start listening to a book almost as soon as I get up.”
Most important motivation: “Getting lost in a fantasy world.”
Favourite genre: “Sort of feel-good novels. I have an innate affinity for positive stories.”
Most recent book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
That thing with feathers
Pleeging says that moments of hope are hard to capture, but she recalls a holiday in New Zealand. “I was standing in the snow with my boyfriend on top of a mountain. It was then that I felt a sense of hope, the idea that everything’s fine and it will be alright.” To put the feeling into words, she recites the poem ‘Hope is that thing with feathers’ by Emily Dickinson.
Hope is that thing with feathers,
It perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
“Sometimes you kill things by overthinking them,” says Pleeging. If you need to explain why something is funny, it stops being funny. The same goes for hope. “You can describe hope, yet there’s still an elusive element.”
Open the shutters
“Books, poetry, films and music can play an important role. They can stir up a feeling of hope without anyone having to explain what it is.” Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series of books have left Pleeging with an indelible impression of hope. Not least because of a remark by Gandalf, one of the characters, who says, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt”, but even more so because of the world Tolkien created. “The language and the history; everything falls into place. The books give you the chance to immerse yourself in another world and to see your own life in an entirely different way.”
She read the books when she was 18 and spending a few months in Nepal with her boyfriend. There was no television or internet and hardly any electricity. In the evenings, when it was quiet, she realised just how much entertainment was available to her in the Netherlands. She bought the trilogy in a small bookshop. Every day, when she returned home after working in a children’s home, she would read. “At that moment it was wonderful to have a world that opened all the doors of your mind and showed you what was possible. It made me curious about tomorrow. Reading The Lord of the Rings gave her a Lust for Life, referencing Iggy Pop’s song. “Very hopeful, just like the story.”
Wisdom is accepting uncertainty
In the books, protagonist Frodo endures an impossible quest to destroy the One Ring of evil once and for all. He is so committed to his purpose that he perseveres even though he does not know whether he will ever reach his destination. Pleeging quotes Gandalf: “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” This is exactly what she finds hopeful. “As long as there is uncertainty, you can keep on going. It has helped me persevere through some tough times.”
In reality, she knows how hard it can be to remain hopeful. “Even though every PhD comes at a time of despair, there is an irony to researching the opposite feeling. As a researcher, I find it easy to write about it, but I am modest: being hopeful is not always easy.”
Emma Pleeging studied Liberal Arts and Sciences at Utrecht University. She did a minor in Conflict Studies and a Masters in Humanistics, for which she did an internship at Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation (EHERO). As a research assistant, she carried out research on hope. In September 2021, she received her doctorate with the thesis Understanding Hope: Insights into the definition, relevance and measurement of hope from an interdisciplinary perspective. She works for EHERO and teaches at the Erasmus School of Economics.