I have felt so hopeless I tried to die. No one could convince me life was worth continuing, although several tried. Was hope there anyway?
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 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 maintain 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 for facing 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, and for the miracle to arrive.
Hope feels better! Hope in its fullness allows us to smile sincerely, and 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 when we fear allowing hope will increase our disappointment later.
For instance, after applying for a job, I waited to hear back. Worry, anxiety, trying not to think about it, and trying not to raise my expectations was unsettling. It hurt. Nothing else took precedent in my thoughts. 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 greater disappointment. 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 refusing to raise our hopes – that’s painful.
There is peace, calm, and rest in hope. 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 clients. Perhaps they could see ahead where I could not. Oh, trust me, depression told me their positivity was misplaced in my case! Still, hope for hope whispered, I can learn from these people.
Here are some strategies they taught 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 also 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, our focus will begin to shift when we ask, 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 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 person with depression will make. Ignoring emails, texts, or calls, skipping work, staying in the house, cancelling plans with friends – all very common among those of us with depressive mood disorders. Here are some healthy opposites.
*If you are in emotional distress or thinking about suicide, call 1-800 273-TALK, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. If you are suicidal now with a plan, call 911 or go the nearest Emergency Room. Do not wait.
*Sit in the Living Room with the rest of the family. Just be there.
*Attend a support group.
*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.
*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, nonjudgmental 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 inquire, performing a quick-change with the subject, and hiding from society lead to loneliness and reinforcement of negative beliefs. This self-defeating cycle begins 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 a form of therapy. No, they are not happy pills and cannot produce hope. They help our brains to function properly so we can make healthy decisions. 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? Like many other vices, 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 each of these reasons, overcoming addiction is best done with professional and organized support.
There are those who have made it a lifelong mission to avoid feeling. Some have learned to turn emotions on and off. Taking the time to find out what it is we are working so hard not to feel can lead to uncomfortable challenges. These difficulties may begin before we are ready to handle them. This process has played out best for me in the context of professional support.
Emotions that accompany depression are sometimes confusing. In the depths of my despair, I felt empty. Yet I did not know what emptiness meant with regard to emotions, so couldn’t express it. Numbness too may come with depression. A person of great faith may feel spiritually dead. There are no quick fixes to such deep emotions in my experiences.
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. In response to their perspective, our playfulness lights up!
We need a fresh perspective when lost in emotion. Asking a trusted friend what they see in us that is worthy, or running our fears past understanding souls in a support group, can lead to renewed vibrancy of hope. We can decide to accept and take in helpful feedback.
Whenever my mind screams, They don’t care!! and My life doesn’t matter!, there is a quieter, firm 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 we stayed in local homes, and sang in some of the most ornate 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. His tone and mannerisms made the language barrier moot. We hightailed it out of there!
Silly of an analogy as this may be, it applies to hope. When we are at a loss to understand the power of words, they can lead us to emotions and experiences we do not want. Changing our vocabulary allows 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 and healing.
Using “Yes, and” statements validates us and supports hope. “Yes, but” negates any good that came before it. 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?” The process of discovering hope was long, and in a smaller way is still ongoing. The biggest leap forward was when I made a deliberate decision.
I would not assume anymore death is an answer, and instead would search for life. My focus would change from glancing back at suicide longing for escape, to discovering what enjoying life means. You see, before we can win, we have to let go of all that is not producing life or strength.
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 have been positive or unhealthy. Either way, hope is slipping away fast these days, and he questions why he should keep 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. Negotiations took over a year as defeat overshouted promise. Today, I write that hope can be found. In our darkest moments, 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 inner responses to pain. Recognizing what we do not and do control, we learn to let go and hang on. It is my desire that you find this website a kind of helping hand for pulling away from hopelessness.
There is a future for each of us, and we make a difference in this world. I am one who was certain those possibilities did not exist for me, 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.