Creating a Sense of Self: Hope

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“Write about something uplifting. People don’t want to hear about too much negative stuff!” Sophie, our site editor, called out as I closed my office door and sat down to write this piece. Of course such a demand immediately makes the mind sprint to hurricanes, terrorist acts (Muslim, Christian, atheist and Hindu), Iraq, earthquakes and the immanent arrival of a flu pandemic.

Such a lot to be negative about–I could write the piece about the mind of a terrorist, about the increasing prevalence of panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, things which nonetheless intrigue and alarm me. I could explain how politicians and marketers use fear to manipulate us and deprive us of our liberties. I could point out that the law enforcement bodies of most western democracies (and many Asian nations) now have wider powers than Hitler’s SS ever enjoyed (though they probably would never use them in the same way) and Dr. Goebbels, his propaganda minister, would have envied the coercive power of modern advertisers .

Instead I’ll write about HOPE. Emily Dickenson said of hope that it “…is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” It is the tune without the words: hope is not about specifics–if it were it could be dashed when the words turn out to be false prophesies. It lodges in the soul because the mind is often so traumatized by present and past events that there is no other place for it.

In fact, as Kalman Kaplan and Matthew Schwarz in their 1993 book The Psychology of Hope point out hopelessness is a relatively recent concept. It is almost unknown in hunter-gatherer societies and the ancient Hebraic writings speak little of suicide and approach reality in vastly different terms: God is an involved parent, caring for his children. In God there is always hope.

Modern psychologists and geneticists assert that hopelessness is learned and that hope is our birthright. Our society teaches hopelessness, consumerism depends on it, misguided parents instill it in their offspring through neglect, abuse or criticism. Much of our media propagates the idea that hope is a waste of time (with the marvelous exception of works such as the first three Star Wars movies).

And yet even in the most depressed or traumatized modern patient, even, perhaps, in a person contemplating suicide, hope never leaves. Even if it’s only the hope of being free of pain. Hope is not the same as the will to live–it’s not another word for our survival instinct, though it may contribute to it. It’s even separate from optimism (of which we have written a great deal in our two most recent books), even though it can obviously be a contributory factor in making someone feel optimistic.

Since the early 1990s we’ve know a lot about the neurobiology of hope, but very little about the psychology of it. I think, in the end hope is a spiritual experience. We feel hope in spiritual situations and in spiritual states: in nature, in prayer, in music, in art, in deep meditation and in just being with people that we love.

I get a surge of hope when I watch a breeze embrace a tree and turn its leaves to reveal quite different colors, or when a puppy approaches me with a bit of petting in mind. I get something of the same feeling when I look at Alicia–my partner, co-author and wife of 22 years–and realize how much I love her. That unison is the Higher Power that keeps hope alive and strong in my soul no matter what setbacks we face.

Physicians know that hope heals. Diseases that would otherwise be fatal can be cured through the stimulation of hope in their patients. Researchers have shown that there is a kind of hope system, rather like the immune system but biologically quite different from it. The two seem to work in tandem in the healing process and not all the drugs in the pharmacological armory will do much good if the hope/immune system is not functioning properly.

What my severely depressed clients want of me is hope. Hope that the disease will vanish, that there is a point to living or that their lives will simply get a little better. In the end that is my job, to become an ally of the hope system, to introduce them to techniques that will stimulate their own soul’s response to pain and thus to heal them. And they do heal, and the pain and the hopelessness do go.

Hope never leaves, it’s in our genes. What we have to do is unlearn hopelessness by putting ourselves in situations–spiritual in the broadest sense of the word–that allow our genetics to overcome out socialization.

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