Filling The Well of Hope

If there is one thing that has been sapped by the events of the last two years, it is hope.  The pandemic, racial discrimination and violence, deepening political division and threats to democracy, and now inflation and the war in Ukraine have left us feeling a collective weariness that some have termed  “crisis fatigue.”  We may feel that our reserves for bad news have run dry and that our emotions have been stretched to the point where we are not coping as well with daily stressors and challenges.  When we look at the gauge of hope on our emotional dashboard, we may feel that it is dangerously low or even on “empty”, and may wonder how we will ever fill it up again.

This loss of hope is not a minor issue.  Research supports an idea found in many spiritual and religious traditions–that hope is essential to our wellbeing and a powerful antidote for adversity.  For example, those studying the relationship between hope and the mental health of young adult college students have found that hope is positively associated with improved coping and well-being, serves as a buffer between depression and negative life events, is a protective factor in suicide, and is also a factor in healthy behavior engagement.   Another example is a 2017 study that found hopelessness to be an independent predictor of mortality and an important factor for health-related quality of life in former ICU patients. It seems that science confirms what the Dalai Lama expressed in 2021 tweet: “Our lives depend on hope.”

So does this mean that those born with a sunnier disposition and natural optimism have an advantage?  Not exactly.  In fact, optimistic people can sometimes be at a disadvantage if their optimism is mere wishful thinking.  A particularly poignant example of this can be found in a story told by U.S. Navy vice admiral James Stockdale. While being held with other prisoners of war in North Vietnam, Stockdale noticed that fellow inmates who were the most optimistic about being rescued were also the first ones to die in captivity. Ironically, those who had a more pessimistic view survived the terrible conditions much longer, precisely because they had a gritty resilience that went beyond mere optimism.  It was something more akin to the concept of hope, which in the words of anti-apartheid champion Archbishop Desmond Tutu is “being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” 

Hope, in this definition, is something that helps us see beyond our circumstances.  It is something, as the famous Christian orator Charles Spurgeon eloquently put it, “like a star–not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity.”  When things seem to be at their worst, when we enter the valley and find ourselves at the bottom, that is when we often discover within ourselves, in the words of French philosopher Albert Camus, “an invincible summer”, that no circumstance or tragedy can completely erase.

That is because hope, unlike mere positive thinking, is closer to what existential psychologist  and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl called “tragic optimism”.  It is the ability to make meaning out of misfortune and loss.  It is the ability to engage our will and agency and to find new ways to solve a problem when the current one is not working: think of the hope demonstrated by ordinary Ukrainian citizens who have found new and creative ways to resist Russian occupation and defend their homeland, or the hope of civil rights activists who have organized protests and grassroots efforts to bring about social and political change.  These are examples of hope that speak to us in ways that words alone never could.  They are acts of courage and faith that say–we always have a choice in how we respond to even the most horrendous realities.

So what can we learn from the example of those who demonstrate such heroic hope?  What can we do to cultivate that type of hope in our lives so that we can be better prepared for adversity and respond to daily challenges with more resilience?

Start with surrender.

The idea of surrender may seem counterintuitive to the goal of fostering hope.  How does giving up and accepting defeat help us become more hopeful?  If we consider surrender as the act of accepting those things that are beyond our control and perhaps admitting that what we have been doing thus far has not been working, then it makes sense that surrender is critical.  By accepting the things we cannot change (such as our losses, events of the past, other’s behavior and choices), we free up precious energy that can be re-focused on the things which are within our control.  In some forms of therapy, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, this is called “radical acceptance”.  Twelve Step programs define this as having “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Whatever you call this process, the result is the same–increased energy for changing ourselves and the things in our lives over which we have the most influence.

Dare to believe that life has meaning.

At the heart of enduring hope that can weather the storms of tragedy, loss, and all forms of human suffering, is the idea that every human life has worth, and that life itself has a significance that cannot be erased by even the most painful realities of the human condition.   Those who study recovery from trauma call this “meaning making” which involves making sense of the traumatic event in a way that, in the end, restores a basic sense of meaning to life and to the individual’s experience.  Finding a way to recover and reinforce our core positive beliefs is an essential component of restoring and strengthening hope.

Imagine a better future.

If you want to build a new house, you first have to envision it.  If you want to generate hope for change, you have to harness your creativity to create a picture of something better first.  Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk puts it this way in his book The Body Keeps the Score: “Imagination gives the opportunity to envision new possibilities–it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true…Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.

While there are many ways to do this, the key is to be honest and specific.  We can ask ourselves:  What do I want to change in myself, my life, the world?  What would that look like?  How would I know I have arrived and my goal has been achieved?  Asking ourselves these specific questions and paying attention to the answers will provide a blueprint for moving forward.

If this feels too daunting, we can try a modified approach using the question “What if?”  Before trying to identify our goals, we could consider the following questions:  What if this was different?  What if I believed I could change?  What if I wasn’t afraid?  These “what if” questions can begin to galvanize our imaginations and help us move forward in picturing a different future.

Go beyond self fulfillment and toward the transcendent.

Our culture puts a strong emphasis on finding personal satisfaction and fulfillment, but this focus can leave us feeling empty and dissatisfied when things do not work out in our favor, or life circumstances sabotage our plans. Shifting our focus to helping others or our community provides a powerful balm for disillusionment and awakens in us a sense of our shared humanity with others.  Hopeful people believe in the good, and they are willing to reach for it by practicing their faith, their spirituality and the most cherished values of their community or culture.  In a world that preaches that all we need to do is believe in ourselves, the idea of going beyond this to believe in something bigger, expands our hope and draws in resources that we could not possess on our own.

Take one step.

When facing a seemingly hopeless situation, those who exercise the most resilience are those that identify something they can do to address the problem, no matter how small the step, and then do that thing.  Sometimes the step is internal, like practicing gratitude or forgiveness, and sometimes it is external, like learning a new skill or contributing to a cause.

Either way, the most hopeful people are do-ers, not merely dreamers, who look at their circumstances and join with others to say, “Let’s do something, instead of nothing.”  These heroic individuals remind us that we always have a choice in how we respond, and there is always hope if we look for creative ways to solve our problems.

President Barack Obama once said: “Don’t wait for good things to happen to you.  If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, and you will fill yourself with hope.”  If this is indeed true, then the best remedy we have for our current dearth of hope is not only to surrender, to use our imaginations and to have faith in the inherent goodness and meaning of life, but also to take a step towards that goodness in whatever way we are able.  If we do, we may just gain the courage to take another, and another, and another, until, step by step, and drop by drop, we begin to see what once looked impossible–we may begin to see our well of hope, and that of the world, fill again.

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