Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness

Man standing on dock overlooking a lake and mountains in the mist contemplating life

We can't see what we can't see

Despite all the self-help marketing encouraging us to "think positive," the truth is that we have an innate tendency to ignore neutral or positive information in our environment in favour of information that may be scary or threatening. This bias toward the negative allows us to more quickly detect threats to our survival and respond in a timely manner. You can imagine why it might be more helpful for our survival to pay more attention to the tiger in the bushes than the beautiful sunset.

Not just are we more aware of threatening circumstances but we react more strongly to them on a physical and emotional level and remember them for a longer period of time. To use the same analogy, having a stronger emotional response to the tiger mobilizes our bodily responses toward safety and imprints the memory so that we don't forget where and under what circumstances we are likely to cross paths with the tiger again. Very helpful. 

We don't even need a tiger to be biased toward the negative, as we have developed the incredible capacity to imagine and prepare for threats to our wellbeing that have never actually occurred. We think about these imagined threats more than we might other possibilities for our life and we respond with the very same painful emotions in preparation for action should these imagined circumstances arise in real life.

While this negative bias is helpful for our survival it may lead to a perception that the world is more scary than it really is. This alone can lead to a sense of fear and hopelessness when we fail to recognize that we are filtering out from a field of possibilities "only the bad stuff" and mistake our biased perception for reality.

The real silver lining

When we think that is not possible to have the life that we yearn for, or when we have experienced profound disappointment and heartbreak - it is agonizing. It is so agonizing that we may choose to abandon all hope of fulfillment in order to protect ourselves from the pain of our unfulfilled longing. If we have not cultivated the capacity to compassionately embrace this heartbreak, we run away - like we are fleeing the tiger.

Every time we let our hearts yearn we feel this pain and we shut it down. We try to prevent our hearts from yearning by telling ourselves that what we want is not possible. We may go so far as to convince ourselves that wanting in and of itself is bad and that we should strive to shut off our passion and strive to transcend our longings by remaining at all times rational and pragmatic or spiritual and transcendent. 

It is not the lack of fulfillment of our heart's yearnings that leads to hopelessness, but rather the attempts to protect ourselves from our passion and our heartbreak. Far from not caring about our life, the life we yearn for is so precious that we would often rather suffer in hopelessness than risk the possibility of failing.

From hopelessness to hope

There is no path that I am aware of that leads from from hopelessness to hope without acknowledging our broken-heartedness and fear. When we are able to enter our fear and sadness with compassion we start to discover our deepest values and our inspirations for living.  

The more we are able to face our disappointment, the less burdened we feel by the weight of hopelessness. Our lives can become more engaged, passionate, and full of possibility - even if the possibilities are not exactly what we had imagined. I am reminded of the famous quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" although in this context I might say, "Tis better to feel the burning passion of unfulfilled yearning than to pretend we don't care."

As this unconscious process of protecting ourselves from disappointment becomes conscious, we have a choice:  "Will I risk engaging with what matters to me in this life, even if I feel afraid and uncertain, or will I give up in order to avoid the possibility of disappointment?"

There is nothing inherently wrong about choosing to avoid the pain of disappointment. It is a choice that we have all made many times in our lives. However, the life that we really want is seldom the life that arises from avoiding all risk and disappointment.  

To face our fear and disappointment takes tremendous courage. As a mentor of mine, Robert Gonzales would say "we may need to borrow the presence of another" when we are struggling with holding our own pain with compassion and understanding. 

The kind of hope that emerges from compassion is a grounded hope, not a magical hope. It is a hope rooted in the knowledge that our lives change, for good and for bad, that no suffering or pleasure is permanent, and that new possibilities may be closer than we think.

As a therapist, I have witnessed how pain, when held with compassion can provide opportunities to awaken to new ways of living that are more fulfilling and how, even in our most cynical moments there is a part of us that yearns for freedom, love and meaning. Change is not just possible, it is inevitable. Sometimes we just need a little support in coping with unwanted change and bringing new possibilities within reach. 

Therapist Nat Roman

Nat Roman is a Registered Psychotherapist with a Master of Science in Couple and Family Therapy and a BA in Psychology and additional specialized training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) processes, community based restorative conflict circles, and fifteen plus years studying, practicing and teaching mindfulness meditation practices and Buddhist psychology. In an earlier stage of life Nat worked as a professional musician and strongly believes that creativity is an essential part of life, whether one is engaged in a formal creative discipline, problem solving, or attempting to get kids off to school in the morning.