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.

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


Season of Renewal


Spring is officially here, and with it comes a sense of renewal. Here in northern California, the green hills and blossoms make everything feel possible despite the drought. Even on the East Coast, as temperatures inch upward, the earth comes alive from underneath the snow that is inexorably melting.

It’s a time of hope.

How fitting and delightful, then, to visit with our friends from Indiana (where, they tell us, the crocus and daffodil are beginning to make a strong stand). Terry and Lisa have always symbolized for me the promise of fresh starts after dark times. After suffering through a painful divorce and the death of a spouse, they met at a conference and fell deeply in love. With fulfilling careers in separate states, Terry and Lisa maintained a long-distance relationship for years. Marriage was certain, but on the horizon.

Then suddenly, everything became less certain. Two springs ago, Terry and Lisa lay in separate  London hospitals in medically induced comas. They had been hit by a double decker bus on their first day en route to a conference. The early reports were grave—no one knew if they would live. Or if they’d be better off if they didn’t. Anxious days and weeks followed, until Terry and Lisa were stable enough for separate medical transports back to separate states.

Their road to recovery has been long but steady. And, miracle of miracles, complete! Today you’d never know how close Terry and Lisa came to death. They are vitally alive, emerging from dark times with even greater gratitude and love. Such a close call did, however, change their horizon–last year Terry and Lisa consolidated two states and two households into one, and got married! They are thriving, and we are so grateful for the renewal of love and life that they embody and inspire.

Lisa and Terry September 2014


What does spring mean to you? What  opportunities for renewal will you embrace?

Line a Day for Five Years

One Line a Day, Five-Year Memory Book

Of the many kindnesses bestowed on me during my cancer detour last year, one stands out. My friend Mary, also a therapist who aspires to write, brought me a small aqua book with “ONE LINE A DAY” embossed in gold letters on the cover.

“This way you won’t be overwhelmed by the blank page,” Mary said.

We had often commiserated over our tortured relationship with writing: our avoidance of it, the ways in which life intervenes, how hard it is to find just the right groove between feelings so raw they burn a hole through the page and one’s psyche versus feelings so repressed our attempts to capture them in words are devoid of life. We shared feelings of fraudulence, futility, fatigue. We knew the misery and mercy of dinner to be shopped for and prepared, the wish to turn off the computer and drown ourselves in West Wing reruns. We knew how to rally one another, to persevere with a slim thread of belief in our own gifts and dreams because the other believed so whole-heartedly in them.

“Just one line a day,” Mary continued. “Anyone can do that.”

But what jumped out at me was the volume’s subtitle: “A FIVE-YEAR MEMORY BOOK.”

Five years! If Mary believed I had this kind of time ahead of me, I could begin to retrieve myself from the choking fear that cancer evokes of being dead and buried.

Since then I’ve written every evening in my aqua book. Mostly just mundane stuff—how my neuropathy rated on a scale of 1-5; Obama’s poll numbers; the little things I’d accomplished (or not) that day. There really wasn’t enough space to go any further than that. But restriction brings freedom, as my yoga teacher always reminds us when she urges us to open up a little more space by breathing through a constricted pose. The same is true of writing—being confined to a line a day freed up space to write more than I’ve written in a long while. The foreshortened time cancer threatened also brought an urgency that freed my mind from neurotic clutter.

And so I have lived, a line a day, breathing in each new morning, writing it out each night. “Five Years” permitted me to envision a future I feared I might not have.

Last night I closed out Year One. Tonight I begin in the second spot on the page for October 29.

Year Two. And then more to come. What a gift.