When was the last time you heard someone say, “Happiness is the most important thing in life”? A business man who has devoted his career to helping others find happiness, recently said that to me. If we look at happiness as a temporal feeling that can be switched off in an instant by circumstances, it seems rather unimpressive as a goal.
I propose that hope is an important foundation in life because its existence allows for love, faith, and strength during unavoidable suffering. Hopelessness (I am referring to no hope at all) cannot produce love because it is too self-absorbed. Hopelessness negates the power of faith because it believes only what it sees in the moment. Hopelessness cannot produce strength when life gets hard, for there is no understanding of purpose. When any of us struggles with major depression, we need hope for life, for feeling better, and for change to come from the inside-out.
One of the goals we hear about often these days is that of sustainability. Using renewable energy sources, training families and even nations how to be self-sufficient – it makes sense. Sustainability of hope is also important. Hope can seem as if it is just there, available, and at other times we have to reach for it. It is in those situations where hope seems elusive that we need to know how to find it, gain it back, and hang onto it.
What is hope?
Which of the following are statements of hope?
*I cannot get back on that old spiral. I can’t go around again.
*My life could produce good, I’m just not sure it’s worth all the pain
*People care about me, they are just focused on their own issues.
*Nothing will ever stop hurting.
*I know I have some control over how I feel
Hope tends to sound more powerful; the person with hope speaks less like a victim. With hope we know we have choices and some options concerning how much we suffer. Hope and a sense of self-worth work together. If our belief is that we are valuable, then the idea of life having meaning is more likely to be part of our thinking, yes?
Hope turns our desire for freedom from pain into teach-ability and positive action. Hope provides some energy to help face the next moment, hour, and day when it is tough to care. Hope allows change to come one step at a time. Hope waits for the process to work, for the miracle to arrive.
Hope feels better! Hope in its fullness allows us to smile sincerely, to love without an agenda; it is the bottom line for gratitude and happiness. A mindset of hope protects us from being swallowed up in overwhelming discouragement.
How can we gain and maintain a mindset of hope?
Hope begins to appear when we decide to believe for it. Hope can be deferred or chosen. We can delay it because we fear that by allowing hope we will be disappointed later on.
For instance, after sending in my third manuscript, I waited to hear back from the publisher. I went through a typical process of anyone trying to get a job, with worry, anxiety, trying not to think about it, and trying not to raise my expectations. It was unsettling, and hurt. Nothing else took precedent over my mind while I waited. Will they call? Will there be a contract? Maybe there’s a chance they will say yes? Oh I’d better not think that, I’ll experience a greater disappointment if I allow that thought. So I put hope off – or tried to.
Does that ever actually work? The effort it takes to squelch hope will usually require far more energy and take more enjoyment out of each day than the final disappointment if it even comes to that. Our reasoning can be, if I don’t hope anymore I won’t hurt. However, pushing down hope or not getting our hopes up – that’s painful.
A few weeks later, the phone rang less than a minute after sending an email to the publisher asking if they had received my manuscript. Turns out, Hurricane Sandy had stolen my contract. What a difference hope would have made those weeks. There is peace, calm, and rest in hope. What if I’d been turned down? It would have been hard. Disappointment is not worse or better because of what we do with hope. The loss is the loss, it will hurt anyway. By hoping, we have shortened the hours, days, months, and years of the pain that deferring it causes.
Most of us have lived long enough to know we do not know much. I sure have. There came a time when hope for hope was all I had, and that only periodically. Hope for hope came with an attitude of teach-ability. In front of me were highly trained professionals, who maybe, just maybe, knew things I did not know. They had been around this particular block many times with numbers of patients, perhaps they could see ahead where I could not. Oh, trust me, depression told me they were wrong in my case! Hope for hope whispered, I can learn from these people.
Here are some strategies taught to me that effectively grow my hope when practiced. These have been life-saving for many people.
1. Motivating Values. When I was 26, I thought I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree. I said to a man in his forties who had just completed his doctorate, “I don’t know if I want to go back to school. By the time I graduate, I’ll be thirty!” He said, “You’ll be thirty anyway. Do you want to be thirty with a degree or without one?”
Thinking about our values and who we want to be, is a guide for our choices. Writing down what is important to us and keeping this list available where it can be seen forces us to make one decision each day : stick to the status quo or read the list. If we are depressed, do we want hope or would we rather stay depressed? Do we want to enjoy life, or hide? Other uncomfortable emotions or behaviors can be addressed this way. What would motivate us to change? Do we want change?
When depression symptoms show up, it is time to challenge negative thinking and beliefs. The result may not be immediate, and we are likely to struggle to care. However, focus will shift by asking, What kind of person do I want to be? What step can I take today toward becoming that person?
2. Acting Opposite. I felt insulted when I was told I live according to my emotions. That doesn’t happen to be true all the time, nonetheless it has been more often than I like. Hope can grow in strength as we practice acting opposite of how negative emotions suggest we act. Here are some ideas, most of which I have tried and found to be helpful.
Act opposite by reaching out: Isolation is one of the first choices a depressed person will make. Ignoring emails, texts, or calls, skipping work and staying in the house, shutting the bedroom door and sleeping, cancelling plans with friends – all very common among those of us with depressive mood disorders. Here are some healthy opposites.
*Call 1-800 273-TALK, the national suicide hotline.
*Go to the store and say hello to people you pass.
*Say yes to social invitations and keep your word.
*Volunteer to do a job that will require regular interaction with people.
*Sit in the Living Room with the rest of the family. Just be there.
*Attend a support group.
*Make one phone call that is not a conversation about depression.
*Send an email to someone you are fairly certain will answer. Ask them to answer.
*Use phrases like, “I need from you” or “please help me with.” Talk about how you feel with a willing listener.
Act opposite by allowing support: Decades of “Smile, you’re on ‘Make an Impression’,” has made changing that practice a daily challenge. I suspect many people can relate. Problem is, that old game has no winners or rewards. Answering, “fine” when sincere friends ask how I am doing, changing the subject, ignoring those who might inquire, and disallowing exposure always leads to loneliness and reinforcement of negative beliefs. This self-defeating cycle will begin to break when we bravely accept support, even just a tiny bit. Today, tomorrow, or next week, we can try again.
Talk therapy is a safer means of opening up to feelings and discovering balance. Psychotropic medications such as antidepressants are also therapy. No, they are not happy pills and cannot produce hope. However, they help make it possible for mood disordered and ill minds to reason. Working with a therapist can move us forward.
Act opposite by facing emotions: What do food, alcohol, drugs, sex, porn, gambling, smoking, shopping, hoarding, television, video games, and the internet have in common? They may become compulsive and are addictive. All addictions have similar brain reactions. What else they have in common is denial and avoidance of real issues and feelings. I’ve observed that for these reasons, overcoming addiction is usually best done with professional and organized support.
Emptiness and numbness often accompany depression. A struggling person of faith may feel spiritually dead. There are those who have made it a lifelong effort to avoid feeling, while some have learned to turn emotions on and off. In developing the mindset of hope, taking the time to find out what it is we are working so hard not to feel can lead to uncomfortable challenges before we become healthier. This process has played out best for me in the context of professional support.
Act opposite by accepting a different perspective: When I was raising toddlers, one Christmastime a grandfather and grandmother were in a toy aisle with me. I heard him say as he pushed all the bells and whistles, “This is great! Didn’t have things like this when we were kids.”
“Uh hmm” said his wife.
He picked up a firetruck and set-off its siren and flashing lights. He was obviously enthusiastic, but it went beyond making a child happy as he played with toy after toy.
I turned to him and said with a grin, ”You know toys are for the children, right?”
They both laughed hard. He’d been caught! It’s true! We share childhood with our kids, responding to their perspective. Our playfulness lights up!
Asking a trusted friend what they see in us that is worthy, or running our fears past an understanding soul, can lead to a renewing vibrancy of hope. We can decide to accept and take in their positive feedback.
Whenever my mind screams, They don’t care!! and My life doesn’t matter!, there is a quieter, barely distinguishable voice advocating for me to stay alive and rediscover hope. That is God. Accepting God’s perspective brings hope for the best life, the one we all dream about where we are loved unconditionally.
3. Change words. Our negative statements are defeating. They keep us stuck. When I was sixteen, I traveled to Europe with a choir representing Ohio. Most of the trip was lovely; we stayed in local homes and sang in some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. Language was a bit of an issue.
My friend Rhonda and I were running around the Rykes Museum in Amsterdam when we saw a sign with foreign words and an arrow pointing down a long empty hallway. We followed it expecting something grand at the end, only to wind up in the middle of the men’s room. A gentleman started shouting at us. With his tone and mannerisms, the language barrier was moot. We hightailed it out of there!
Silly of an analogy as this may be, it applies to hope because when we are at a loss to understand the power words have, they can lead us to emotions and experiences we do not want. Using healthier terminology aids our quest for hope simply by allowing hope to be an option. By replacing black and white language we gain possibilities. Helpful trade-offs include:
- should to could
- can’t to it will be difficult
- never to unlikely
- must to have options
- always to often or sometimes
- I’m useless to I’m fragile now
- Taking giant leaps like hopeless to hopeful may not always reflect the truth. Instead, changing hopeless to challenged may be more realistic.
Using “Yes, and” statements validates us and allows for hope as supposed to “Yes, but” statements which negate any good. For example, “Did you get your work done?” “Yes, and tomorrow morning I will present my proposal to the board.” Versus, “Did you get your work done?” “Yes, but tomorrow I have to present the proposal.”
All of these strategies: knowing our values; acting opposite; changing our words; and more, are never easy while in the midst of depression or despair. They are doable. From the bottom of the pit, all look doubtful at best. They are possible.
Buying into hope
I was asked, “How did you get there? How did you get to the point you know who you are?” Anyone who reads my first book (Called to Live: A Chronicle of Recovery After Attempted Suicide) will see that as I wrote it I was in the process of discovering hope. The biggest leap toward that end was when I made a deliberate decision. I would not assume anymore death is the answer, and instead would search for life. My focus would not be glancing back at suicide longing for escape, but rather discovering what enjoying life means. The first step of any change is to let go.
Consider a man who is working in someone else’s field. He discovers a pearl of great price. Will he not go sell everything he owns and buy that field? Let’s put this old story into a modern context. A man has worked hard at triumphing over his emotional pain. He has done what he knows to do, maybe those efforts were positive, maybe they were unhealthy. Either way, hope is slipping away fast these days, and he questions why he should keep on trying. Change will cost money, time, painful conversations, digging up festering wounds of the heart, vulnerability, and the release of familiar patterns. Will he choose to invest in his mental health? Or will he continue down the path of despair repeating those efforts that never worked?
I chose to figuratively sell everything I had and buy the field. It was not a quick decision, and to use the analogy a bit more, negotiations took over a year. Hope can be found. In our darkest times, we can choose to hope for hope or refuse it.
Ask, What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to live? How can I start today?
Hope for permanent transformation comes from watching little changes work. One step at a time hope grows as we experience positive reactions to our pain. Recognizing what we do not and do control, we learn to let go and hang on. It is my desire that those who are struggling will find this website a kind of helping hand for pulling away from hopelessness.
There is a future for each of us, and we make differences in this world. I am one who was certain those possibilities did not exist or were not worth the pain of loss. Still, holding on however weakly to the hope of other people gave me a more stable under-girding until I found it for myself.
Now I offer my hope as a lifeline to anyone who wants to reach for it.