Day 7: Having Hope When Hope Makes Little Sense

Day 7 of 30 days to better mental health

Posted Jan 08, 2015

This series supports the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference I’m hosting from February 23 – 27, 2015. Please get your free ticket to the conference now by visiting https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel. And plan to attend!

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Each day in this series of 30 days to better mental health, I want to propose one simple idea and one simple strategy in support of that idea. If you’d like to view other posts in this series, please visit here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/eric-r-maisel-phd

You might like to ask a friend to join you for these 30 days. The two of you can chat about the ideas I’m presenting and support each other in your efforts to try out some new strategies. You might even want to get a whole group involved!

Today we look at the following.

It has been said many times that when Camus paints a smile of victory on the face of his famous character Sisyphus—Sisyphus, who has been condemned by the gods to roll stones up a mountain for all eternity but who nevertheless can smile at his predicament because he can still thumb his nose at his fate—Camus is not being true to life.

In real life, human beings rarely smile when hope is stolen from them. They rarely smile in prisons, prisoner-of-war camps, or refugee camps. They rarely smile when they lose their children. They rarely smile when the work they do and the very prospect of work stop interesting them and they hold no hope of ever using themselves again productively. They rarely smile when their body stops working well. They rarely smile when they give up hope of being treated fairly, of rising out of poverty, of making themselves proud by their efforts.

What does it take to still have hope when having hope makes little sense? Few answers have worked as well as religion, where you are offered a better life elsewhere to make up for the difficulties in this one. In that better life you will meet your slain children, the ones you can’t stop mourning. In that better life you will be finally free of pain and have everything you ever dreamed of wanting. In that better life you can stop toiling mindlessly and finally escape oppression. Religion provides a satisfying reason for smiling now: a wonderful eternity coming.

And what if you recognize that there are no gods, no heaven, and nothing better coming to mitigate this life? How can hope make sense then? Aren’t you more inclined to drink yourself into oblivion, shut your eyes, bite your lips, and go through the motions, or keep busy with one pointless enthusiasm after another than muster hope? Hope for what, after all?

Hope for what, after all?

This lack of hope ruins our mental health. Existentialists have characteristically provided two answers to this dilemma: rebel by thumbing your nose at the facts of existence; and hope anyway, even though hope is an absurdity. These answers satisfy us in the corner of our being that appreciates irony and rebellion but hardly work as effective answers in the face of real feelings of hopelessness.

There isn’t quite enough meat on those bones. It is hard to get out of bed just to thumb your nose and smile ironically at a universe that doesn’t care one way or the other whether you have decided to get out of bed. Maybe that can prove motivation for one day out of seven—but what about the other six?

If your mental health requires that you still maintain hope and if you find yourself no longer believing that hope makes any sense, what can you do? You can make yet another effort—maybe a last-ditch effort—to find a personal, non-trivial way of completing one or another of the following incomplete sentences: “I can still hope for … ” or “I can still hope that … ” or “I can still hope to … ”

What if you discover that one of the following completed sentences actually strikes you as true?

+ I can still hope for love

+ I can still hope for the small enjoyments that I have always enjoyed

+ I can still hope to stand up for my principles and make a slight, tiny difference in the world

+ I can still hope to fight the enemies of reason

+ I can still hope to wrestle something beautiful into existence

+ I can still hope that my efforts will bring a few people some small comforts

What if you completed one these incomplete sentences convincingly? That would provide a huge boost to your emotional and mental health.

Today, do two “simple” things. First, ask yourself the question, “Have I lost hope?” and honestly answer it. Second, if you discover that you have indeed lost hope, try to answer one of those incomplete sentences to your own satisfaction. Try hard.     

To summarize:

Today’s goal: To restore hope

Today’s key principle: Hope matters; and losing hope happens. If you have lost hope, you have the job of restoring it.

Today’s key strategy: Restoring hope by convincingly completing one of the above incomplete sentences.

Good luck today!

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Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://ericmaisel.com. Contact Dr. Maisel at ericmaisel@hotmail.com. And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February: https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel

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