On Hopelessness and Hope: A Conversation with Deep Psychologist Michael Penn

A conversation with deep psychologist Michael Penn

Photograph by Rajesh Krishnan
Photograph by Rajesh Krishnan

Richard Whittaker and Preeta Bansal

Around the age of twenty-two, a near-death-experience transformed Michael Penn into a seeker. Following this profound encounter with his own mortality, he began an extensive study of sacred texts and the works of the founders of the world’s religions.

Today, Professor Penn is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College. His research interests and publications include works in the pathogenesis of hope and hopelessness, the interpenetration of psychology and philosophy, the relationship between culture and psychopathology, the epidemiology of gender-based violence, and human dignity and human rights.

—Preeta Bansal

Richard Whittaker: I wonder if we could begin with you telling us a little about your childhood in North Carolina.
Michael Penn: I was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We lived on some property that had been given to my grandmother by her mother, who had been a slave. But the land upon which we lived was not fertile, so we could not grow anything, and we did not have the kind of employment that would enable us to make for ourselves a life. So we were eking out an existence.

Then, one day, through our great fortune, a school bus crashed on our property. My mother said to my uncles, “Remove the seats and we’ll make that our home.” So, my mother was wise enough to have extended the reach of our house beyond my grandmother’s house, so we could live as a family together.

My dad was a Native American, a Cherokee, and my mother was an African American. After three or four years of living in this house, a city inspector came by and said, “This is not fit for human habitation, and you’ll have to move immediately.” Since we could not move back into my grandmother’s house, my mother decided that we were to move to Brooklyn. She gathered what resources we had and, after we paid for our tickets, we left with about four dollars and some chicken sandwiches that my grandmother had made. We arrived in New York and started our lives there. I was around four years old.

RW:  So, your family had a very direct connection with slavery.
MP: Yes. You know, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, all of the slaves didn’t immediately liberate themselves, because they had nowhere to go. Many of them remained, essentially, as indentured servants for decades after the end of slavery, and my great-grandmother was among those. In fact, one of the most remarkable early experiences of my life was encountering her. It was very powerful in shaping my thinking.

RW: She was able to share some ofher stories?
MP: Right. In those early days everybody was interested in the question, “How did the slaves survive?” And my great-grandmother used to recite an extraordinary poem that used to be sung in the church she attended. The poem goes, “A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify, who gave his love, my soul to save, and fit it for the sky. To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill, O, may these all my powers engage, to do my Master’s will.”

I guess the idea of that poem was that nothing could prevent her from achieving her destiny on Earth; whatever might befall her, she had to somehow find how she could pluck the fruit of life while still here. And she had every confidence that if she conducted herself with the highest degree of dignity possible, no matter what happened to her, she would, in fact, harvest the fruit of this life on Earth. I was just so impressed and so moved by encountering somebody with such a philosophy. She was a philosopher, even though she was a former slave….

RW: At the University of Pennsylvania, you studied psychology, history, and religion and ended up getting a doctorate in psychology.
MP: Right. My doctorate was on the pathogenesis of hope and hopelessness. One of the things we’d been discovering about trauma in both animals and humans is that when animals and humans are exposed to uncontrollable, adverse events, it induces a state of hopelessness and helplessness. With this particular condition it’s very, very difficult to recover without the help of some outside intervention….

RW:  I have a sense that some people are so traumatized they can’t even be open to a vision of hope. How to get past a kind of fixed hopelessness?
MP: Yes. I think this is the power of a great clinician; that is, to re-awaken the power to imagine. One of the things that trauma does is that it smothers, to a significant degree, the power of imagination—and the power of imagination is absolutely critical in order to envision a life that’s different from the life that one is living. So many people who suffer from trauma have their vision of possibilities greatly diminished by their experiences with trauma. They lose confidence, for example, in their own abilities to change and to grow—and sometimes even to survive.

So, clinicians who are really good have this capacity to re-awaken a sense of vision, a sense of imagined possibilities, in people who are traumatized so they can begin to build a new life if, in fact, they’re out of the situation that’s causing them trauma.

RW: So really good clinicians have a gift, like an art, that can help bring a sense of possibility to birth in a person who has no hope. That’s something that you can’t exactly spell out.
MP: I completely agree. In my understanding, there have always been two traditions of learning in the world—what I call the academic-scholastic tradition, which has to do with discovering the laws and principles that govern the operation of nature. Then there’s the wisdom and light tradition, which has got to do with understanding the laws and principles that govern the development of the human spirit, the development of the consciousness of the self; of the refinement of wisdom and the ability to help a life go forward, in spite of the stress and the difficulties that every life must endure. I think that great clinicians have to combine both the academic-scholastic tradition of learning with the wisdom and light in the tradition of learning, if they’re going to be any good.

RW: Yes. I noticed that in 2003 you published a paper entitled “Mind, Medicine, and Metaphysics.” In my own study of clinical psychology, except for Jung and one or two others, I didn’t find any attention being given to, let’s say, the higher possibilities of a human being. So in your title, the word “metaphysics” really stood out to me. Would you talk a little bit about that?
MP: What I tried to do in that paper was to give a rational account for what might be meant by the human spirit. I tried to invite psychologists and psychiatrists to bring deeper reflections on the human spirit back into the practice or discipline. Psychology certainly has to protect itself from any kind of dogmatic superstition, but it could also learn a great deal from reflecting with the great philosophers and thinkers who have described the nature of the human spirit, the needs of the human spirit, and … the longings and potentialities of the human spirit. I tried, in that paper, to give a reasonable explanation of what the human spirit might be. I also tried to invite psychologists and psychiatrists to take it much more seriously in their research and clinical work, and in their discourse with humanity about what human beings are.

RW: What kind of feedback did you get?
MP: Well, as you would imagine, the feedback was bifurcated. I got lots of messages from a wide-range of clinicians all over the world. Some said, “This is going to be groundbreaking. It’s really exciting.” On the other hand, there was the view that, “No. Psychology has liberated itself from this. It shouldn’t hitch its wagon to any ancient philosophy or any system of thought that’s not grounded in empirical research.”

A kind of a dogmatic materialism has been eating away at psychology from its very early days, and we haven’t been able to shake off the lure of materialism. So the response was mixed.

RW: I also found a presentation you made called “The Nature of Mind, A Baha’i Inspired Perspective.” You quote Bertrand Russell, for his reductive, materialist vision. Did you find other philosophers representing a broader, deeper dimension of the human spirit?
MP: There were lots of them. Probably the greatest was the great philosopher Karl Jaspers. I love his work. He lived at the time of Nazi Germany and was a psychiatrist. Many of his colleagues turned to Nazism. He wanted to know how someone with a well-trained mind could give himself or herself to an ideology so squalid and so empty. So, he began to really study history and discovered a period that he called the “Axial Age.” In the Axial Age, humanity, as a species, acquired a new mind, essentially because there appeared, in different parts of the world, philosophers articulating a philosophy of transcendence.

There were Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, the Buddha in India, the prophets of Israel and Mesopotamia. There was Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato in Greece—and Zoroaster in Persia. These philosophers all lived during a three-hundred-year period. Through their influence, they transformed human thinking. And because the mind is the reservoir from which civilization flows, these great thinkers gave birth to new forms of civilization, new forms of relationship, new forms of governance, new forms of science, art, and architecture. And Karl Jaspers plumbed these great thinkers to great advantage.

RW: You used this phrase the “Axial Age,” and I’m familiar with it as applying to a period 2,500 years ago. But I gather you believe the term is also appropriate for today. Is that true?
MP: That’s exactly right. A dear former student, Sophie Wu, and I are writing a book that describes the period of history we’re living in now as a kind of a Second Axial Age. A world is dying and a new world is struggling to be born, and this new world that’s struggling to be born is essentially grounded in a recognition of the interdependence of all humankind. All civilized life on the Earth now has to be organized around this fundamental, spiritual, moral, and practical truth, the truth that we constitute one human family. Systems of governance, our system of economics, have to reflect this essential truth, and we’re arguing that at the foundation of this truth is the life and development of the human spirit.

So, we’ve returned to this discourse on the human spirit because we think that humanity has to develop a kind of consciousness of the human spirit, and place it as our highest value. The development of the human spirit, its protection and well-being, has to become the ground of our effort to promote human rights, to promote human dignity, to promote civil rights, and to promote human solidarity.

RW: That’s a tremendously hopeful vision and I’m sure we all look forward to your and Sophie’s book. What are the things that worry you about this moment in time?
MP: The really crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society. There’s a sense that history, thus far, has recorded, principally, the experience of tribes, and cultures, and classes in nations. But with the physical unification of the planet in the last century, an increasing acknowledgment of the interdependence of all on the Earth has begun to unfold.

So the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. Endowed with all the wealth of the genetic and cultural diversity that’s evolved through past ages, the Earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on our collected inheritance and take up, in a conscious and systemic way, the responsibility for the design of our future. This responsibility is one that can no longer be avoided.

We’re seeing revolutionary changes taking place in every sphere of life, and essentially, the interaction of two fundamental processes. One is essentially destructive, because old systems, old ways of thought, are proving their impotence, and they’re collapsing. At the same time, new ways of seeing are appearing, and new systems of thought. These new perspectives of where we could be or go are now in a kind of a gigantic contest with these old modes of thinking.

So we have to support one another, encourage one another, and build a system that honors the dignity of all people. I think the real challenge is to keep faith with the truth that’s humanity’s future, although we’re passing through a very challenging period…..

The School of Athens (detail). Raphael, 1509. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Zoroaster is on the left.
The School of Athens (detail). Raphael, 1509. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Zoroaster is on the left.

Preeta Bansal: Here’s a question we received online from Gayathri in India. She asks, “What does research show about good methods to pull oneself out of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of trauma, particularly in the perspective of collected traumatic experience of materialism, climate change?” She says, “It’s hard to envision a different future when most of the world seems headed down a self-destructive path.” This is a big question, but what could help us, as a collective, pull ourselves out of hopelessness and helplessness?
MP: I think it’s true that the turmoil convulsing human affairs is unprecedented. There are dangers unimagined in all of history, gathering around a distracted humanity. But I think also, the greatest error we could make at this juncture would be to allow the crisis to cast doubt on the ultimate outcome of a process that is occurring.

It seems to me that humanity is in a stage of pregnancy, trying to give birth to something new. We’ve been engaged in a process of trying to create something new. For the last one hundred, or even 150 years, humanity has been at a turning point. It’s hopeful whenever people speak to the nobler aspirations and visions, not just railing against what’s gone wrong with the world, but offering a vision of how we could, for example, organize our community life in ways that are more respectful of women, more respectful of children. How could we use the arts to inspire one another to higher levels of cooperation, unity, consciousness? How could we extend the reach of education working, not so much on an abstract global level, but working in communities?

One of the things we’re doing in the neighborhood I’m living in is what are called Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Programs. We work with college-age and high-school youth to develop the most noble qualities of character. Then they use their collective capacities to render service to the neighborhood to demonstrate in their own lives that young people can be great assets to a community.

We believe that when we carry out these simple projects in a consistent, long-term way, what we do is nurture the hopeful vision that’s really at the foundation of the human spirit and heart. It’s not sufficient to complain about the difficulties in which we’re living. We’re summoned, in some way, to use our powers and capacities to inspire others, to encourage others, to work with others to gradually bring into being the kind of world we wish to see.

PB: In terms of your life story, I’m thinking of two particular times [that] you felt that you might die of loneliness. Were there other times of helplessness or hopelessness in your life? And what allowed you to keep going?
MP: I’ve come to rely a great deal on the sacred arts of prayer and meditation. I think that meditation is greatly underestimated as a human power. Even as a young boy, even as a teenager, when I was going through serious difficulties, I would spend a great deal of time in states of meditation. Meditation helped me metabolize a lot of the anxiety and would enable me to go, say, for a few more hours, or a few more days. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to keep yourself going until a new dawn arises in your life, until a new opportunity emerges.

My own ancestors, African Americans, endured tremendous difficulty. My mother is one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met in my life. And my dad, a Native American—although he was an alcoholic—was very, very wise, very grounded, very calm and very assured that life is mysteriously organized in such a way as to bring out the best in us, if we allow it to do that. Our lives, through tremendous stress and tremendous difficulty, can mine the inner virtues and qualities we have that we don’t even know about. So, that’s always been a part of my latent philosophy.

Just to be clear, I also think that the Holy Ones—the founders of the great religions, the prophets, the great seers and messengers—have a tremendously inspiring influence on the human heart, on the human soul. So I commonly turn to them. I think we have to draw upon these vast spiritual resources. And of course, the wonderful science of psychology is making great contributions. We have to encourage one another and work together. We have to believe that just as an individual has different stages of development, childhood, infancy, adolescence, and adulthood, so humanity, as a species, has different phases of development.

One gets the sense that we’re in the adolescent stage of our collective development, struggling to grow into our maturity. So, I’m hopeful.♦

This interview was done via Awakin.org. The complete interview is posted on conversations.org.

Preeta Bansal is a ServiceSpace volunteer and anchor for Awakin Calls. A lawyer, senior policy advisor, and lecturer, she is currently focused on heart-centred approaches to social change.

Richard Whittaker is the West Coast Editor of Parabola and is the founding editor of Works & Conversations. A collection of his interviews, The Conversations: Interviews with Sixteen Contemporary Artists, is available from the University of Nebraska Press.

From Parabola Volume 43, No. 4, “Hope,” Winter 2018-2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing


By Richard Whittaker

Richard Whittaker is the West Coast Editor of Parabola and is the founding editor of works & conversations. A collection of his interviews, The Conversations, Interviews with Sixteen Contemprary Artists, is available from the University of Nebraska Press.