How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Realistic Sources of Hope

Without hope, we wither. Here's how to find some.

Martin Luther King said, "If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream."

Alas, life’s travails can make one lose hope. Here are, I believe, legitimate sources of hope where it would seem there are none. I offer no magic pills here, only modest bases for true hope.

Physical illness. Let’s say you have end-stage cancer. The doctors have told you that additional treatment isn’t worth the suffering and cost, and that you have just a few months left. An at-least modest source of hope for you exists in this very hour, even this very minute. Could you hope to make a difference in someone’s life right now, for example, by writing a note to a relative or phoning a friend to offer to help them or ask them to help you? Could you find hope for the next generation by visiting a nice school and watching the children on the playground? Or, if you’re religious, might you find hope in believing your disease is a loving God’s will that serves a greater good and/or that you have hope for a greater life in Heaven?

Mental illness. Let’s say you suffer from major depression. You’ve tried a range of drugs, even had electroconvulsive therapy. There are new, promising treatments for example transcranial magnetic stimulation and deep brain stimulation. And even if there’s nothing now, thousands of very smart people are working tirelessly to find better treatments. Until then, if you’re too depressed to do more than lie in bed, might you find hope in small things: the budding tree you see from your window, the TV news of a lost child found, or even the Bible’s words of hope, for example, “In God’s great mercy…kept in heaven for you…rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (I Peter 1: 3-6.)?

Long-term unemployment. Let’s say you’ve been unemployed for years, applied for hundreds of jobs and gotten none. To gain confidence and momentum, should you take a job, any job: flip burgers, be a Wal-Mart greeter, clean hotel rooms, mow lawns, drive a cab? Can’t get or don’t want those? How about volunteering for a cause you believe in, or help a family member? Think of that first work not as a dead-end but as a launchpad. That’s a legitimate source of hope.

Bad relationship history. You’re zero for umpteen in romantic relationships but still want one. Hope may lie in the lessons learned. List all those relationships. Could you learn something from your track record: Cut your losses earlier? Wrong type of person? Falling for someone you hope to fix? Do you need to be kinder and a better listener? Less selfish? More?

Now think about where you're most likely to find your Mr. or Ms. Right: volunteering, in a course, on a cruise ship, in a dance class, a set-up from your friends, a relationship ad? Tip: In your ad, include your weaknesses that your partner would have to accept in you and weaknesses you could accept in your partner. As my mom used to say, “There’s a cover for every pot.”

The world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. The media disproportionately covers the bad stuff. But as Harvard’s Steven Pinker points out, violence is actually in decline. Also, there is much good in the world: nature, music, games, some people, and yes, Psychology Today articles. Look for the good and you will find hope for the world and for your existence.

You’re suicidal. That’s the ultimate lack of hope. You feel nothing matters. In fact, you think the world would be better if you're gone. But might you matter to at least one person, maybe more? If not, could you make yourself matter to someone? Tutor them? Be a big sister? Adopt a pet that would otherwise be "euthanized" at the pound? Or make a difference for a cause you believe in?  If so, might you want to live for that person, animal or cause? Often, an antidote to feeling suicidal, paradoxically, is to replace introspection with focus on helping. Of course, if you feel imminently suicidal, call someone you trust or the national suicide hotline, which has local counselors available to take your call 24/7: 1-800-273-TALK. There may be more good ahead of you than you can currently imagine.

Almost always, there is legitimate hope.

Dr. Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of his writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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