The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times – Jane Goodall and Douglas Carlton Abrams

About Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams

Dame Jane Morris Goodall is an English primatologist and anthropologist. Seen as the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, Goodall is best known for her 60-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees since she first went to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960, where she witnessed human-like behaviours amongst chimpanzees, including armed conflict. In April 2002, she was named a UN Messenger of Peace. Goodall is an honorary member of the World Future Council. (Source: Wiki)

Douglas Carlton Abrams is a former editor at the University of California Press and Harper San Francisco. He is the co-author of a number of books on love, sexuality, and spirituality, including books written with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar, and Taoist Master Mantak Chia.

The Book of Hope – A Summary

‘In a world that seems so troubled, how do we hold on to hope?’ – is the central question around which The Book of Hope revolves. As the blurb of the book outlines: ‘Looking at the headlines – a global pandemic, the worsening climate crisis, political upheaval – it can be hard to feel optimistic. And yet hope has never been more desperately needed’. Written as a conversation between Jane and Doug, the book explores how Jane has come to understand, experience and become the ambassador of hope. It opens with the chapter, An Invitation to Hope by Jane which outlines all the reasons – from climate change to the idea of democracy being under attack – we have for urgently considering and clarifying the concept of hope for ourselves. She writes, “Hope is often misunderstood. People tend to think that it is simply passive wishful thinking (…) this is indeed the opposite of real hope, which requires action and engagement.” and ends the section outlining her own hope for the book: “It is my sincere desire that this book will help you find solace in a time of anguish, direction in a time of uncertainty, courage in a time of fear.”

From thereon, Doug takes over as the narrator of the conversation between the two of them. He begins by sharing why he reached out to Jane with this idea for the book – Jane had already travelled for decades as a messenger of hope to so many across the world; and secondly, he wanted to know how she herself had sustained hope during her almost 90 years of living. He describes meeting her for the first chat in Dar es Salaam and they begin their conversation with the core question – what is hope? Through the conversation they derive the importance of agency and action to hope; the difference between hope, imagination and faith; how hope might be a survival trait that is not uniquely human. These intertwine with stories from Jane’s own fragile beginnings, how a young nature loving girl made it to Africa to study chimpanzees; the frustrations of chasing after chimps trying to gain their trust; the triumph of challenging human uniqueness through the discovery of Chimps using tools; the grief of losing her husband; the great role of nature and animals in healing her through pain and suffering. Doug also covers the science of hope pointing out that having hope has shown to boost performance and happiness. He also sets out the four components as per science – goals, pathways, confidence and support – that ensure we have a lasting sense of hope. The next section of the book is divided into Jane’s four reasons of hope.

The first of these is titled, The amazing human intellect. Jane begins by pointing out that by intellect she means ‘the part of our brain that reasons and solves problems’ and that it is this explosive intellectual development (abilities traced to our prefrontal cortex in the brain) that has given humans their ability to shape the world. She explains how the development of language probably played a big part in this. They then discuss how the application of this intellect directs how we respond to the current crises in the world – making them worse or healing them – taking examples from across the world of societies which have chosen aggression or peace. Jane emphasises that while there is still a lot of violence and evil in the world, from a historical perspective, there has been change towards the good, largescale wars and bloodshed have come down. “Just as only we are capable of true evil, I think only we are capable of true altruism”, Jane adds with several examples from personal experience. She points then for the need to continue to develop a universal moral code that would help us move towards our capacity for altruism instead of aggression. “I think that wisdom involves using our powerful intellect to recognise the consequences of our actions and to think of the well-being of the whole”, Jane summarises. She points that responding to solving four great challenges – alleviating poverty, reducing unsustainable lifestyle of the affluent, eliminate corruption and controlling human and livestock population – would be a step in the right direction.

The second reason is titled, The resilience of nature. Suffused with Jane’s love for nature and animals, this section is told through many stories: The Survivor Tree (a Callery Pear tree) found and nurtured to health and returned to the 26/11 memorial at ground zero; Camphor trees which survived the atomic bomb at Nagasaki; Wollemi pines in Australia that were thought to be extinct; Date palms that were brought back from seeds that were 2000 years old; Chatham Island black robins being brought back from near extinction; reintroduction of Schimtar-horned onyx into its original wild habitat; and many more. They speak of all these examples even as they contend with the terrible decline and damage to nature that humans have done, talking about ‘eco-grief’, the sense of loss that many who are fighting this trend are experiencing and how one can begin to hold that grief and yet respond to the issues. “We must find ways to help people understand that each one of us has a role to play, no matter how small. Every day we make some impact on the planet. And the cumulative effect of millions of small ethical actions will truly make a difference. That’s the message I take around the world.”, says Jane. She also shares how her own hope is held up by the time she spends in nature gaining spiritual power and strength, even as they discuss the practices embedded within indigenous cultures which recognise and celebrate this. Jane points to built-in resilience, life having its innate ability to survive and thrive, how it inspires qualities such as adaptability which she says was at the heart of evolution and has been central to projects of restoration and rewilding degraded lands and eco-systems around the world. She ends by pointing out how ‘every species has a role to play, how everything is interconnected’ within eco-systems, a concept which is also at the root of the method and work her own organisations have undertaken. Ultimately, she says, “In protecting these ecosystems, in rewilding more and more parts of the world, we are protecting our own well-being”.

The third reason is titled, Power of youth. Jane begins the conversation by stating how she always knew she wanted to work with children. She noted in her early chats that there were a lot of young people who seemed apathetic, depressed and disengaged because they felt that their future had been compromised and nothing could change pointing to inter-generational injustice. While she agreed that ‘we have stolen their future’, she also felt that all was not lost: “If everyone starts to think about the consequences of what we do, for example, what we buy (…) and, if so, we refuse to buy it – well, billions of these kinds of ethical choices will move us towards the kind of world we need”. This led Jane to begin her youth program ‘Roots and Shoots’ in 1991. The section continues to pull together stories – from Tanzania, America, China, Burundi – of how the Roots and Shoots program has since its inception empowered so many young people to change mindsets and take action within their communities. Its main message: ‘every single individual matters, has a role to play, and makes an impact on the planet – every single day. And we have a choice as to what sort of impact we will make.’ As Doug points out, ‘One of the most important determinants of hope in one’s life is seeing one’s agency, one’s ability to be effective’, and the Roots and Shoots program enables this. They also address the question of how we can nurture our children to be hopeful and Jane outlines how supportive care-giving by immediate adults is crucial to this process.

The fourth reason is titled, The indomitable human spirit. They begin with Jane’s personal definition of spirit: “It’s my personal energy force, an inner strength that comes from my sense that I an connected to the great spiritual power that I feel so strongly – especially when I’m in nature.” They then move to the word ‘indomitable’ and Jane explains, “It’s that quality in us that makes us tackle what seems impossible and never give up. (…) The inner strength and courage to pursue a goal at any cost to self in a fight for justice and for freedom.” Several examples are discussed – such as Martin Luther Kind Jr., Ken Saro-Wiwa, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Archbishop Tutu and more. They also speak of people from their own lives, Jane’s grandfather, her husband Derek and Doug’s father and son. They remark at qualities of humour, courage, resilience, hopefulness as important qualities that can mark the indomitable. They cover historical events which showcase how seemingly impossible situations have been turned around. They also again point to the need for consistent nurturing, safety and care for children to grow up with inner resilience and the importance of social support in times of trouble.

The last section of the book covers Jane’s path to becoming a messenger of hope. It covers a more deeply personal terrain of questions and experiences as she speaks to Doug from her home in Bournemouth. She introduces him to the important people and animals in her life through their portraits in her home – extraordinary relationships which she felt taught her much and facilitated the path she’s been on. She also shows him her two shelf full of stuffed toys, some of whom she carries with her for her talks and hold remarkable stories of animals, their intelligence and abilities, and the people who might be working to save them. She also speaks of her ‘symbols of hope’, little articles with inspiring stories of hope embodied in them including a California condor’s feather (a species recovered from the brink of extinction), a piece of the Berlin Wall, amongst others. As they discuss important junctures and challenges of Jane’s life, her own resilience and passion are demonstrated, making that tremendous journey from a little shy girl to becoming a global ambassador of hope. She also speaks about her inspiration to do the work being larger than herself and shares her personal opinion and experience of the world around being filled with its own intelligence and wisdom.

The book concludes with a ‘message of hope’ from Jane. Here, she outlines again the importance of hope in dark times and reminds us the importance of action to overcome despair. She ends by writing, “Please believe that, against all odds, we can win out, because if you don’t believe that, you will lose hope, sink into apathy and despair – and do nothing. (…) Please rise to the challenge, inspire and help those around you, play your part. Find your reasons for hope and let them guide you onward.”

The Book of Hope covers subjects that might seem heavy but it is a surprisingly easy and hear-warming book to read essentially because Jane’s indomitable spirit, her life and story-telling veer away from academic and the statistical and instead enfold us in the warm embrace of stories with living breathing animals, people and eco-systems. In times such as these, it does exactly the job it has set out to do – uplift.

Further reading and listening:

What It Means to Be Human – OnBeing Podcast conversation with Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall: ‘Change is happening. There are many ways to start moving in the right way’ – Interview from The Guardian

Discussion Themes and Questions:

– What are the emotions and thoughts you are experiencing in the face of these turbulent times?
– How do you understand hope at a personal and at a societal level?
– What were your thoughts regarding Jane’s idea of hope, do you agree or disagree?
– Do you agree with Jane’s four reasons for hope? What would you agree or disagree with? What would you add?
– What did you like about the book? Were there elements that did not agree with you?
– What was something that you learnt or were struck by in the book?
– How in your opinion and actions are you enacting hope?