When Hope is Too Much to Ask For

Lately with everything going on—the tanking economy, rising COVID-19 cases nationwide, a federal government that toggles between authoritarian overreach, lies, and violence and complete inaction, climate change continuing unabated, increasing racial and economic division, in case you’d forgotten—I have been having some trouble feeling hope. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

I want to feel hope. I want to cling to it like a foam ring in stormy waters, like a teddy bear in the wake of a nightmare. I search for it, sifting through news and data and scenarios, but it eludes me and I’m left feeling even more alone and overwhelmed.

For some, I know, gratitude helps by bringing focus to the things that are going well in one’s life. I like gratitude, but it’s got some limitations. Sometimes, for example, things really are very, very bad and trying to find gratitude is as futile as trying to find hope. Seeking a sense of gratitude and not finding it can itself feel like a failure. For those of us inclined towards anxiety, depression, or ruminative thought, this easily turns into a cudgel: I have all of these good things in my life but I keep letting them be overshadowed by the bad, therefore there must be something wrong with me. I am ungrateful, my mind insists, irredeemably flawed, and it won’t take “shut the hell up” for an answer.

So, I’ve stopped asking myself to feel hope or gratitude. I gave myself permission to stop struggling for those things that feel so unattainable. Instead, I try to bring awareness to the whole situation: not try mentally to beat it into a shape resembling good news, not try to argue myself out of a grief that is completely warranted, but just observe all aspects of things as they are. When I’m wearing my mask while on a walk, I continue to notice the humid environment building up around my lower face and notice the irritation that arises when the unmasked people coming toward me on the sidewalk show no sign of allowing six feet of distance, but at the same time I also notice the breeze on my forehead, the ground supporting my feet, the waxing moon rising in the late afternoon, the smell of dinner cooking in one of the homes along my route. I avoid labeling any of these things as “good” or “bad;” I just give them my attention and move on.

This isn’t hope; it’s just a more complete picture.

For me, mindfulness meditation has been helpful, but I’m sure there are other paths that lead to a similar place. I schedule in three meditation breaks each day, the longest (15-20 minutes) before breakfast, the other two, usually 5-10 minutes long, roughly midday and after dinner. During these breaks, I note the sensations in my body without trying to analyze or change them. I observe the expansion and release of my rib cage as I breathe. When thoughts start to pull my mind away from this awareness, I take note of that and bring my attention back to my body or breath. When I have time, I follow these up with some stretches for my neck, jaw, and shoulders, which is where I hold most of my tension.

Then between meditation breaks, if thoughts and worries start getting out of control, if one aspect of reality starts hooking my attention more than another, I’m more easily able to pause and reset my awareness.

When I was a doula, I would sometimes tell laboring moms, “The only thing you have to do is breathe.” If you’re breathing, everything else will unfold. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or painless, just that breathing is the only thing you have to do throughout. The current situation reminds me of labor—events unfolding over which we have limited control, uncertain of how long it will take or how painful it will get, the only way out is through. Except that childbirth has a clear goal, an outcome to hope for. This situation doesn’t. But the importance of breathing still applies.

Awareness in itself solves nothing, but it provides the foundation from which we can take other action, whether that’s remembering our mask when we go to the grocery store, or realizing a way to eliminate an unnecessary trip away from home, or writing a letter to our elected officials, or calling up a relative or friend, or looking into our loved ones’ eyes because it’s so easy to forget to do that with everything else that’s going on.

And maybe hope follows, maybe gratitude makes an appearance, and if they do, we notice them along with everything else. But even if they don’t show up, we’re here, present in this world with all of its contradictions and limitations. And sometimes that’s the most we can hope for.

sunset over ocean and cliffs

3 thoughts on “When Hope is Too Much to Ask For

  1. I appreciate your candor, as these feelings, though I am sure shared by millions if they were being honest with themselves, are not easy to admit to an audience. If I may, I would like to share words by May Sarton which I used as a benediction in a service I lead, but also is a good thought to meditate on: O Great Spirit, “Help us to be the always hopeful gardeners of the spirit who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth as without light nothing flowers.”

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    1. Thank, you Michael. I like the image of the hopeful gardener. In this context, it seems appropriate that nearly the only plants flourishing in my literal garden are the ones I didn’t intentionally plant.

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