There is so much hopelessness and despair in these strange times.
Young people are looking ahead to a future that looks bleak, seemingly stripped of opportunities and possibility. Older people have been deprived of time with their children and grandchildren, living in constant worry about contracting Covid. And then there are the parents, especially parents of young children, trapped at home, having to wear so many hats, with precious few opportunities to take a breath and find a quiet moment of ease.
Hope seems to be in short supply. And so we’re invited to ask the question: Where do we look for hope?
If you get only one thing from this article let it be this: We need to look for hope inside, not outside, of ourselves.
For most people, hope seems to be an exercise in clinging to the possibility that things might be okay in the future, that life will turn out okay. Maybe this means keeping or finding a job. Maybe it means not getting diagnosed with cancer, or not losing a loved one to illness or accident. Maybe hope leans towards a more collective vision: tackling climate change, shoring up democracy, beating back a deadly virus, going back to life as we knew it.
Whatever flavor this kind of hope may have, it’s dependent on circumstances being okay outside of us, out there in the world, or at least out there in our own little world.
Given that way of looking at things, it’s not surprising that hope is in short supply. The world can look quite bleak right now: jobs are uncertain; schools are still closed; relationships are on hold; natural disasters abound; our political system is under attack; hatred and racism are on full display.
If we’re looking for hope in the uncertain landscape of this topsy-turvy world, things might look quite hopeless.
But what if that way of looking at things is a profound misunderstanding of what hope is and where to find it? What if hope has nothing to do with our outward circumstances at all?
Maybe this sounds far-fetched. But maybe if I share my own story of hope, it might make a bit more sense.
In early 2020, I suffered a serious head and neck injury. For the next few months, I struggled to recover and couldn’t seem to make much progress. Unfortunately, my struggle was compounded when I got really sick, likely with Covid. For months after being ill, I struggled with acute insomnia, complete loss of appetite, and skyrocketing neck pain.
This was the beginning of seven months of a downward spiral, with my head injury symptoms becoming so severe that I could do nothing but the most basic life functions.
I couldn’t sustain a conversation beyond a few sentences. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t listen to music. I couldn’t walk very far or exercise. My brain was demanding complete rest in order to heal. The extreme inactivity sent my neck pain through the roof.
It would be an understatement to say that things looked bleak. Day after interminable day, I had no choice but to sit in my discomfort, with absolutely nothing to distract me. It’s hard to describe just how long a day can feel. And how hopeless.
I could see the toll this was all taking on my husband and my kids. Medical care was hard to get in the early days of the pandemic. I couldn’t talk enough to really advocate for myself or participate in my own health care decisions. The medical interventions I was able to get mostly set me back and made everything worse.
It wasn’t pretty. And I fought it. I fought the whole experience tooth and nail. Every minute of it for months. It looked utterly hopeless.
Until it wasn’t. Until I stopped fighting, stopped resisting, stopped thinking my way into despair every day.
Then something magical happened. I loosened my grip on my thinking about my situation. I stopped looking for hope in the idea that things needed to get better. I stopped looking for hope in the idea that I needed to recover or looking for it in my need for my situation to change or improve.
That’s when hope found me.
When I let go of my resistance to my situation, I started experiencing some beautiful moments. They were moments of sheer delight: delight at the beauty of the sunlight on a puddle of water, or at the magnificence of a perfectly built spider web. I was delighted by birds, by trees, by the bright red of an apple, by the softness of the sheets on my bed. I discovered that my capacity to be “delighted” by the simplest of things was completely untouched by my injury, my illness, my pain.
It was always there anytime I let go of my thinking and dropped into the moment. I couldn’t always do that, of course. I sometimes stayed gripped by my thoughts. And then I just suffered. But when I could let go, delight never failed to show up.
That feeling of delight grew and unfolded for me until it touched more than just my delight at the physical world around me. It came in the form of a rush of love and gratitude for my husband, my boys, a good friend. It came in the form of sudden, inexplicable joy. It came in the form of a moment of ease, of peace.
It came in many forms, but always from the same place: a place beyond my thinking, a place deep within myself.
I came to recognize it as the intangible “good stuff” that is always there beneath my thinking. And it was what got me through the hardest year of my life.
And because of it, I now have a very different relationship to hope. I now see that hope has nothing to do with my outward circumstances and everything to do with the knowing that all the good stuff in life is unaffected by outward circumstances.
That good stuff is where our true well-being lives. And it’s untouchable. It’s completely safe from all life events. It’s safe from other people. It’s even safe from our own thinking. It’s always there, waiting to emerge through the slightest gap in our thinking.
It’s where hope lives.
Hope is knowing that no matter what happens, you can still tap into all the good stuff. It’s knowing that even when the worst happens, you can still love, feel joy, and be bowled over by delight. You can still be at peace. You can still connect deeply with others and with the world.
Hope is knowing you’re not a victim of your circumstances or a victim of your own psychology.
Hope is knowing that there’s a space deep within each of us that is a refuge, that is the source of all that we’re looking for, and that that space is unaffected by anything that happens to us. It’s simply untouchable.
That’s hope. And hope-full.