Look at what’s going on around us. World events, greed, cynicism, hate and disinformation squeeze our capacity for hope into a narrow thing, almost hidden away. And yet hope is essential. We have to believe in the possibility of good things and good people. We must have some expectation that things could get better, and that our actions could make a difference sometimes. We have to believe that there will be a flower among the thorns and that somewhere in our numb, angry or sad feelings there are moments when we will smile. Without hope, we would sink into despair. Hope keeps us from giving up, from spiraling ever downward. If we are lost to despair, everything gets worse.
Hope is a belief or an expectation, even if it sometimes exists below our awareness. Where does it come from? It doesn’t depend on thinking that a steady stream of good things will happen, or else hope would only belong to the naive and the lucky. Life is rarely like that. Hope sometimes appears when things are looking grim, and can get us through hard times. How is it that when we’re confronted with hardship, sickness and conflict, we can experience hope?
Does it depend on faith? Not religion, necessarily, but a belief in the future even without evidence. A belief in the world’s capacity for good, sometimes when there is evidence all around us that the world can be cruel and corrupt. By “the world,” I mean human societies and governments.
We have to be able to stand with one foot in the world of bad news and the other in the world in which people are good and kind. We have to face corruption, greed and incompetence in order to oppose it where we can. Standing a little in that world, we do our best to learn how and where bad things happen in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones as safe as possible.
But planting the other foot where we find good things is essential. If we are completely immersed in a world dominated by lies, cruelty and such things, we risk losing our perspective, becoming cynical, and slipping into despair – we lose hope. We have to remain some of the time in a place where our reality is shaped by things like kindness, generosity and peace.
I’m thinking of the person who does not sugar coat the problems of the world, but keeps looking for and noticing good things, nurturing and holding them in a place where they will not be overwhelmed by the bad news of the world. Where does that ability come from? I think such people are mostly made by experience, not born to be “immune” to troubles and worries. My training and experience with families and young children inform this opinion.
I think this ability to keep finding positive things in a difficult world is more likely to be present if we have had experiences early in life with a mostly trustworthy, loving world. It happens when we have had attuned caregivers, usually (not always, for we are all imperfect) meeting our needs and showing that they care. Such a person might be a parent, grandparent, or someone else with whom we live or spend a lot of time. As babies and toddlers, we still have moments of frustration and rage, and we might overwhelm our caregivers occasionally. But afterwards, they welcome us back and heal the breaks in our relationship.
There are people with a capacity for hope whose start in life did not include relationships like that. I’m sure that somewhere, later on, they had a teacher, relative, foster parent, or other important person who was steadfast, caring, and able to do their part to rebuild a relationship when it gets torn. These are the things we need to make sure to do for each other now. (If you are interested in how people who had early difficulty can later develop secure attachments, read this article by Dr. Hal Shorey.)
Regardless of what happened in the past, at times like these we can use a little nudge toward hopefulness, an idea or two about finding hope. Here are some thoughts to consider:
- Stay close to those significant people who help you keep standing with one foot in what’s good. These are the trustworthy ones, those who really listen, reach out, forgive, make amends, and accept who you are. No matter how much people like me seek solitude, we are wired for relationships, and those relationships are the engines of hope.
- Figure out how to budget your time so that you spend some of it in what’s beautiful and good in the world. Nature, art, time with friends, projects that contribute to what’s generous and good. Remember the difference between the distraction that comes from fun and the sustenance that comes from what is really good. (If you’re working very many hours, caring for children or those who are sick, there may seem to be no time for this. If that is the case, even a little bit of time spent in this way may make a difference.)
- Find some time for quiet and stillness, time to reflect or at least to rest from the constant barrage of sounds and images we are confronted with. For some people, learning meditation or yoga can be helpful.
- Find time and energy for self-care in whatever way you can. You could consider the first three ideas above to be self-care, but there may be specific problems needing to be resolved. Any improvement with such problems will free up emotional energy needed for hopefulness.
- Remember that when you are stressed, tired and discouraged, the way you think about things is affected. It’s helpful to step back from your thoughts and conclusions and see them as your perception of reality and not reality itself. How you see your situation can be colored by the weight of what you are carrying. A more hopeful view may become visible once you recognize this.
(A version of this post first appeared on the website for my activities as a Licensed Psychological Associate.)