The Rollercoaster of Hope and Fear
When it comes to storytelling, art imitates life. Take a moment to watch this short video:
Whew! Nerve-wracking, right?!
I bet you went from calmly reading an article to tensing with worry with each step the little ducks took, all the while cheering them to safety. In other words, you took a ride on the mighty rollercoaster of hope and fear.
In truth, we ride this rollercoaster every moment of every day.
How could we not? We have ambitions, dreams, and desires, and just like the little ducks, we constantly bump up against obstacles, frustrations, and failures. Every pros-and-cons list we draft, every choice we make, and every action we take is fueled by our hopes and fears. A brief list of my own hopes and fears right now would include the hope that this article is interesting to you and the fear that it’s not; the hope that a potential client answers my email and the fear that she won’t; and the hope that my right eye is just a little irritated and the fear that I’m going blind.
I could go on - but I fear boring you.
Stories are conduits for our hopes and fears. I recently observed my six-year-old niece as she listened for the umpteenth time to a re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel. She knew exactly what was coming, but her explanatory asides revealed how she was processing the experience. “They’re scared of the witch, but she’s not really mean.” “The oven is for baking cakes, not cooking children.” The rereading of a familiar story was helping her come to terms with her emotions and put them into perspective. It was as if she was teaching herself what she did and did not need to worry about.
As adults, we find the same catharsis in dramatic storytelling. If we boil our hopes and fears down to their ultimate existential expression, we hope we’ll live to see another day, and we fear we won’t. Movies, novels, and other narratives tap into this, allowing us to figure out what we’re afraid of and what we hope for. In the best of cases, they give us a handle on our fears and an affirmation of our hopes.
Let’s take a closer look at how hope and fear plays out in an example of fiction.
I chose a beloved classic, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Or, as it’s called here in France, Bip Bip et Coyote. Created in 1948 by Chuck Jones, the cartoon features the ever-optimistic Wile E. Coyote, whose sole ambition in life is to catch and eat the Road Runner, a lightning-fast running bird.
As soon as you have a character with a goal, you have hope. Wile E. Coyote is the embodiment of hope against all reason. He’s completely outmatched by the Road Runner, and he never, ever succeeds in catching him. And yet there he is, like any true protagonist, doing everything he can to achieve his goal, never, ever giving up. The tension between the Coyote’s limitless optimism in the face of repeated failure launches an entertaining cycle of hope and fear.
The Road Runner is an archetypical trickster, a clever character who enjoys upending convention. He never cycles through hope and fear himself, because escape is a given. Instead, he entertains himself by outwitting the Coyote and watching him fail. The Road Runner is both an objective for the Coyote and his main antagonist. As the objective, he dangles the carrot of hope in front of the Coyote’s nose. As the antagonist, he blocks the Coyote from achieving his objective and thus taps into the Coyote’s fear.
Besides the impossibly elusive Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote faces additional obstacles to his objective: an inflated sense of his hunting prowess, and gravity. The Coyote fancies himself a genius inventor. He creates elaborate contraptions to catch the Road Runner, always sure that this time his plans will work. But, of course, they always backfire. As for gravity . . . every one of Coyote’s schemes ends up with him being crushed by an invention or falling into the void. The Coyote’s only victim is himself.
Interestingly, the Coyote doesn’t feel fear until the moment of failure, when all of a sudden the void is staring him in the face. And even in mid-failure, he finds reasons to cling to hope once again.
This short segment is thrilling because in the Coyote’s heart, hope never dies:
We empathize with the Coyote, because we, too, have stubbornly tried and failed—and tried again and failed again—at something in our lives. And, whether we understand this intellectually or not, one of the reasons we keep watching the Coyote is because he’s the embodiment of unbounded hope, a deeply human quality that we relate to.
I make the above statement knowing full well that almost no one roots for the Coyote. Nobody wants to see him catch and eat the Road Runner. I’ve used the Road Runner to illustrate the hope and fear cycle with many clients and students around the world, and many of them tell me that as children, they didn’t understand that the Road Runner’s escape was a given. That it was, in fact, built into the premise of the story. As such, they felt genuinely worried for the Road Runner’s safety.
Whichever view you take—empathy with the Coyote’s blind stubbornness, empathy with the innocent Road Runner, or a mix of the two—the hope and fear cycle is alive and well in this cartoon. If you empathize with the Coyote, you get to create a little emotional distance to your inner hopes and fears, and you get to laugh at someone else’s foolishness. If you find yourself truly worried for the Road Runner, you’re hooked into your inner hopes and fears, and you get to feel relief when all ends well (and you get to laugh at the bully’s comeuppance). And if you feel for both of them, you get to experience a little of each.