Hope in a Time of Despair

Sustaining yourself in the most challenging of times

Posted Jul 31, 2020

It doesn’t feel wise for me to enumerate all of the possible causes of despair, but I do feel the need to ground this piece in time. So, to state what feels obvious: We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a public health crisis that has changed our daily lives. We are also, in the United States, in a moment of reckoning, facing our country’s history of racism and the present experience of Black people. 

So many lives have been lost -- so many people have been killed -- as a result of these two crises. The enormity of those losses alone, their causes, preventability, and implications, is enough to lead to despair. But, the lack of clarity about how we will move out of our present circumstances into a better future is downright depressing. Colleagues who have worked for years doing anti-racist work are feeling like this moment is shockingly despairing; as a public health professional as well as a mental health professional, I observe a values conflict between what we want for ourselves as individuals (freedom) and our actions (valuing individual lives and personal choice over the collective good).

As a faculty member at a university, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual event to help re-envision higher education, at least as we may approach it in Fall 2020. An event facilitator opened the meeting with several quotes from Congressman John Lewis, who passed away at age 80 just a couple of weeks ago. Congressman Lewis represented, for many people, a beacon of hope, someone who led with morals and saw that action was the path to freedom. 

Personally, I had remained in a very stuck place over the past several months, as I watched many of my supports dissolve and the future become increasingly unclear. I can’t say that I didn’t have hope, but I can say that I could not think more than a day or two ahead. I was extremely present with my own circumstances, which in some ways is good, but in other ways is limiting. I found that the words of Congressman Lewis shifted something within me, opening me up to taking a different perspective. 

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Source: Twitter

Being able to think expansively is what makes us human. How can we -- all of us -- develop resiliency in the face of such deep despair? 

Allow for what you are actually feeling. I think a lot of people struggle to find the idealistic balance of being optimistic or hopeful with the reality of experiencing true pain. In the realm of racism and social justice/injustice, this rings particularly true. We cannot ask people to push away feelings of anger, to deny the real pain they are experiencing. That kind of expectation furthers injustice. 

Anger, fear, sadness, or any other “negative” emotions are acceptable responses to many situations. By allowing for what you are actually feeling, you can build your ability to tolerate that feeling without it taking you down. (Here is psychologist Tara Brach’s approach to allowing emotion, RAIN.)

Seek help, but make it the right help for you. One of the most powerful changes over the past several months has been the normalization of engaging in therapy via an online platform. In some ways, this shift means that more people can access mental health support. In other ways, it is limiting, as is the case for people who cannot have a confidential or safe conversation at home and so are unable to engage in therapy at all right now. Alisha Ramos wrote a thoughtful piece about her experience as a Korean American woman seeking and finding a therapist that may resonate for other people who have had a hard time finding a person who could really hear their story. 

Self-compassion is giving ourselves the same kindness and care we would give a friend. Sounds easy, right!? Self-compassion needs to happen after we allow for emotion, as often what comes up is fierce self-criticism: “I shouldn’t be angry; others have it much worse.” “I’ve been sad for months. This is ridiculous. I need to just get over it.” “I will never feel better. It will always be like this.” Self-compassion allows us to do what we naturally, instinctively do for others, but for ourselves -- a true challenge. 

An example of a self-compassion practice is a Self-Compassion break: 

  1. Naming: Say “This is a moment of suffering,” or “This is really hard right now,” or “I’m really struggling.”
  2. Remind yourself of our common humanity: Say “Suffering is a part of life,” or “It’s not abnormal to feel this way,” or “Many people are going through similar situations.”
  3. Support bringing kindness to yourself: Say “May I be kind to myself in this moment,” or “It’s going to be okay,” or “I’m so sorry.” (Explore one of the best collections of resources for self-compassion, by one of the world’s experts, Dr. Kristin Neff)

These are truly unprecedented times. We can extend care to ourselves so that we are able to come out the other side intact, if not perhaps even stronger.

Copyright 2020, Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved