It’s been nearly a year since the world was introduced to COVID19. It’s created debilitating fear for some. For others, the isolation fostered deep despair. For everyone, the unknown gave way to an endless passing of time. Add to the pandemic a civil unrest many have never seen and others are forced to live through yet again and in crept hopelessness. What gets a person through such times? What helps us lift the weight of tragedy? From witnessing the journey of people marching for change or the tenacity of healthcare workers giving their best against the odds, it’s clear it can’t be done without hope.
“But, how do I have hope when I feel so hopeless”? Fair question. Many people seek hope in 24-hour newsfeeds, latching on to beliefs in a political system, or through the promises from loved ones that never come through. They cling to the idea that hope is a feeling that will energize them for another step forward. It’s true that hope does improve mood, generate energy, and give a sense of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, waiting for those sensations to show up at our heart’s doorstep contributes little to their creation.
Suggesting hope to someone struggling to even rise from bed is risky. If someone’s already feeling they’ve failed to sustain, asking them to attempt yet another impossible feat is often taken as cruel offering. Because hopelessness at it’s worst can lead to suicide, it’s important we continue seeking answers for how to help others find it. It is so crucial, in fact, there is even research being done on the matter. The Hope Research Center at Oklahoma University proposes that hope is not an emotion, but rather a type of cognition. In other words, hope is not a way we feel, it’s a way we think. Those researchers suggest hope arises from creating a pathway for moving forward. (Anyone interested in the science of hope should read Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life, by Chan Hellman, Ph.D., executive director of the Hope Research Center and Casey Gwinn, J.D., President of Alliance for HOPE International). In the meantime, how do we help the hopeless find their path? Allow me to offer some necessary tenets in this search discovered in times when I’ve found myself barely clinging to the edges of hope.
First, no destination is reached in leaps and bounds. Most journeys are taken in steps - inch by inch. The power of gaining hope is in the process rather than the destination. Each step confirms the future can be better than the past. Reinforced is awareness that we have what it takes to make our lives better. Some people struggle to realize small steps are impactful. Perhaps we’ve used as our beacons too many icons, high-level athletes, celebrities, and powerful politicians. This leaves us believing our own tiny steps have less meaning. We’ve begun latching on to what’s sold to us by people whose successes are sustained by our votes, social media follows, and endorsements. We look to them to pull us along to their brighter future, believing that’s also the road to our progress. While true that we can find inspiration in other’s stories, carving a path for hope must be personal and authentic to us. Only then can we perceive these steps to be evidence of our own ability to make it out of the dark.
Secondly, our emotions and decisions don’t always align. There are days when we can do what needs to be done without having an emotional desire to fuel the actions. I learned this by talking with combat troops preparing to enter life “outside the wire” and wondering how (and if) they might survive. There’s a tenacity needed for difficult things. Just ask any nurse who’s been sitting with strings of patients taking their last breath without loved ones nearby. Many say that while the overwhelming emotions leave them exhausted, something inside propels them onward. Without holding their action steps hostage to a feeling, they develop a fortitude that sustains them in difficult moments. Rather than fueling energy from emotion, they gain it from intention. They share a conviction to keep going anyway.
Lastly, hope is lost without a plan. That’s where the thinking comes in. Consider how we’ve held on to the day scientists developed a vaccine. Once this came to fruition, many people sighed relief. Finally, we have a way out. Our hope was found in the map, a direction including clearly defined steps. Structure gives us foundation. Foundation offers strength we need to move forward. While that foundation is built from intention and our plan, it is held together by the support we get through compassion and connection. Perhaps that’s the most important ingredient of all. Making sure no one has to travel the path alone. It’s paramount that our plan includes support from others. Connection is both the fuel that keeps us going and the place we find rest along the way. Plus, if there are unexpected twists, turns, and interruptions to our plan, that support can hold us up.
We still attach the concept of hope to a feeling as often heard in the phrase feeling hopeful, though it’s promising to know we can build hope from the bricks of intention, a plan, and connection. Even penning this piece is a destination that began with small steps. I’d started it several times and would walk away discouraged as the newsfeeds left me feeling we were all lost without a compass. Eventually, shifting my intention, I took a step toward the keyboard and then another step by beginning to type. I’d also found a glorious virtual support group for therapists that meets weekly and drenched myself in connecting with others. Each step moved me closer to this port of call where my wish is that you find encouragement in the event you, too, are clinging to the edges of hope.
If you find yourself struggling with hopelessness, please reach out for support.
National Suicide Hotline
This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional. If you find yourself struggling to manage challenging thoughts or moods, contact your primary care physician or seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.
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