The Paradox of Hope

HopeAt a recent storytelling event ushering in the New Year, audience members were asked about their resolutions: “To give up hope only to regain it,” one woman said.

This echoed something I’d heard just weeks before at a clinical meeting I facilitate, when I asked the staff to share something they were doing for self-care. A colleague who unfailingly sees the best in everyone surprised us all by saying she had given up hope, and was thus no longer so prone to disappointment.

Hope, we are told, springs eternal, so such dissents from the cultural imperative to uphold it are rare. Nowadays it often seems the more difficult things become, the more we are forbidden to feel hopeless. We are urged to look on the bright side, keep gratitude journals, embrace the lessons of hardship. And no wonder: It is difficult to live in despair.

Exercises cultivating resilience and hope can bring genuine relief, broaden perspective, even pull one back from the brink. They can also preserve relationships. Being around someone who despairs is also difficult, and in lieu of outright fleeing, it is tempting to extend a lifeline. Yet who really escapes—the person feeling hopeless, or the person who cannot bear to listen? Those who are unable or unwilling to be coaxed out of sorrow might soon find themselves alone.

Our clients know this (or at least the lucky ones do). They worry about burdening or alienating others, fear wallowing in hopelessness. So they bravely try to focus on the positive, often with felicitous results. Yet the more people feel compelled through internal or external expectations to disguise despair, the more pinched they become. It is as if they squeeze themselves into emotional Spanx to keep everything contained and looking good.

Psychotherapy offers the relief that comes from shedding such constraints, breathing freely, and being one’s natural self. The terrain of hope and despair is tricky, though: therapists must help clients navigate the depths of unbearable pain without stranding them there. Often we see ourselves as the guardians of hope. Yet we must never impose it. We would do well to remember the famous story of a patient in analysis who said that the only time he felt hope was when his analyst agreed with him that it was hopeless, but that they would carry on together anyway.

It is when we make room for hopelessness that hope, too, might find a little space.

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What are your thoughts on the balance between hope and hopelessness?
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Originally published in Impulse, an online publication of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

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7 thoughts on “The Paradox of Hope

  1. To live without hope is crushing to me. It is part of what I believe makes us human, but imposing it or forcing it is unbearable too. I guess acceptance is more important in some ways. We must accept those around us as they are: with or without hope. By the way, I love your last line! “It is when we make room for hopelessness that hope, too, might find a little space.” Priceless!

  2. The thing that irritates me about hope is that it seems to be this idea about something in the future: a feeling, a destination, a pay-off. But hope inherently doesn’t come with a game plan or a trail of breadcrumbs. For me hopelessness is similar: it’s the assumption that there will never be a trail of breadcrumbs or that the pay-off doesn’t exist. I think there is almost always something in our here-and-now that brings comfort and always something that brings discontent, but to attach future expectations, is exhausting. Who has time for that! I’m too busy for hope or hopelessness. I got laundry to fold!

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