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Finding Hope in Hard Times

Acknowledging hopelessness can unlock the hope within.

Key points

  • Naming hopelessness, a normal and expected feeling, helps create compassion and emotional stability.
  • Hopelessness and hope are not mutually exclusive. Acknowledging hopelessness can make room for hope.
  • Asking for help immediately safeguards against hopelessness. We demonstrate our openness to support from others.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

“I am lost. Please show me the way.”

As I sat down to write a post about finding hope, I was flipping through an illustrated Japanese phrase book by John Lennon, and these words leaped right off the page at me. I found myself instantly mouthing the words, just like a young child learning to read. I had found the names for what I had been feeling. With the world turned upside down, I am feeling lost. And I would most certainly love for someone to show me the way. Just letting those words speak, I could feel some tension let go from deep within me.

These past few weeks (years) on planet earth have been tumultuous and anxiety-provoking, and being able to find words to express that made me feel that I wasn’t lost in some forever caption-less place. Words matter. Even the littlest ones.

Moving from feeling the lost-ness to actually being able to articulate “I am lost” is the beginning of our well-being. Words are coordinates. Legitimate ones: Lost is a place—a place where we temporarily land. Especially in hard times. A place where we can find ourselves.

At that moment, as I felt more connected with my narrative rather than a jumble of despair and judgments about feeling despair, hope suddenly sprang back within me. There was room for it. I felt compassion—a person I knew well was suffering—it was, in fact, me.

Can you relate?

Unbeknownst to me, I judged myself for not being resiliently on my toes—sure-footed and sneakers forward as I usually am. That kind of silent judgment is one way we can really feel lost. Yes, we feel lost, unable to understand or predict the future as we see what we thought we knew seemingly disappear from the horizon.

But the inner disorientation gets us frightened and out of sorts. Because just as easily—by having compassion for our experience--we find ourselves again. It doesn’t take a huge change to the outside world to feel differently on the inside. Even in these unprecedented times, hope and hopelessness do not preclude each other—they are part partners in a dance, in a process.

Where do we find hope? In essence, it is within us. And of course, that means between us as well. My hope helps your hope. Your hope helps mine. Multiply by even a small fraction of the eight billion of us on earth—there’s a lot of potential there.

Depending on how you’re feeling at this moment, this may hit as good news or bad news. Do we need one more job right now? Can’t we have things on the outside help us? Understood, and yes. But it is helpful to know that the job of alighting on hope out of hopelessness may be as simple as remembering to compassionately surrender to our feelings of vulnerability. Maybe the news is not so bad.

Once we connect with that vulnerability of feeling lost and hopeless, paradoxically, we are no longer shut off from ourselves. Instead, we are available to be stirred, energized, motivated, mobilized, and inspired—the elements that sustain hope in the world (and feel much better than the despair of hopelessness).

Feeling hopeless and lost these days might not be what people are saying aloud, but it’s what many, many of us, are feeling encountering the world as it is. Because of that, I will be talking about summoning hope in hard times with Amanda Stern, author of Little Panic, and whose newsletter How to Live, I highly recommend—in our next Instagram Live.

Meanwhile, here are some ways of responding to lostness and hopelessness to keep the channels clear to finding your way back to a place of compassion and hope:

  1. Honor your feelings of hopelessness without being consumed by them. As with any uncomfortable emotion, don’t try to deny it; don’t let it pull you deeper into the hole of interlocking impossibilities—racing ahead, making predictions based on that hopelessness, banking, and building on it. Instead, simply welcome hopelessness like a guest, fully and warmly trying to understand it, so it will not keep asking you for its attention. N.B.: guests are not the same as permanent residents in your mind.
  2. Remember that compassion for ourselves isn’t often our first instinct. We go through layers, a wise young adult explained to me recently—compassion is the underlayer, the one that comes last. The top layers may be denial, depression, anger, grief, and even despair—at some point, we notice who is living through all those layers! That’s when compassion rushes in.
  3. No judgment. Part of what bogs us down and sends us to hopelessness is all the patterned responses (understandable, but still not helpful, a refrain throughout the pandemic). We can be compassionate with ourselves for why we have these responses. We aren’t judging ourselves for them, nor do we want to be locked in by them. These feelings are to be expected and are not a sign of your failure or weakness—you’re not not resilient or doing life “wrong” because you don’t always feel hopeful. Competent people around you feel the same—even if they don’t show it. It is a step in the process, a dialogue or dynamic within us all, and the humanity of suffering and learning and growing from it.
  4. Humble goals: Find little pivot activities. The thing to remember about hope is that sometimes it comes simply from the absence of hopelessness. Sometimes we feel most hopeful when we’re not thinking or feeling about it—we’re just moving along with trust in our steps. So while searching for hope is good, as is acknowledging hopeless feelings, once you’ve done this adequately, doing anything other than focusing on hopelessness is good too. No act of hope is too small. Pivot to any action: Whether it’s getting up and brushing your teeth, watering the plants, putting on a piece of music, or playing one on an instrument. We haven’t solved those unsolvable problems, but we are back on the road—there is hope in any action where we rejoin the flow of life.
  5. Hope without proof. Do we need proof for the existence of hope? As the saying goes, pessimists are always right, but optimists make change happen. Pessimists can talk your ear off and drain your resources arguing for negative outcomes—and we may feel that we are coming up short on proof to the contrary—but this is exactly where hope comes in. Hope is momentum-forward trust in life and oneself, without the certificate guaranteeing “x will happen.” I think about philosopher and activist Cornel West’s words, “I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.” So, like the child’s game “would you rather…?” I think I’ll join with Mr. West and be a prisoner of hope rather than be certain of the case for terminal hopelessness—even if I’m risking that I could be wrong (But I'm not.)

A final thought, for now, is to go back to the simple, handy phrase which John Lennon's book reminded me of. If we can permit ourselves to ask for help with being lost—from a loved one, trusted friend, a real or imagined mentor, a higher power, or the universe itself–this is truly the other side of the coin of hopelessness.

The simple act of asking for help acknowledges the truth that we can’t do it alone. And we can’t. But we can together.

Thank you for being here, dear readers. I feel less alone. I hope you do too.

©2022 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.