Monday, March 9, 2015

When Hope Is Our Enemy

There are minutes and hours in our days when hope is not our friend. There are days when hope is not only seemingly unattainable, but it is detrimental.

For many of us, hope is something that we latch onto, whether we are going through a specific difficulty or crisis, or if we are in a period of extended despair. We repeat sayings to ourselves such as "Don't worry, tomorrow will be better," or "When <insert here> happens or <this person> comes into my life, all will better and I will not feel this way."

Society and many self-help gurus and preachers only reinforce this. Who among us has not clicked on an article about how to achieve happiness in 8 easy steps, or listened to a sermon that distracts us from our current depression by ensuring that there is another realm waiting for us where there are no tears or sadness? 

Hope, at best, can be a temporary fix from our pain; in this way it is like crack or some other drug. At its worst, hope can keep us on a never-ending merry-go-round of avoiding what we're feeling in the present. It can be the constant distraction. It is in this way that hope is very much like regret.

Why is it that we are so afraid of letting go of hope? Why do we attach ourselves to it like we attached ourselves to our childhood teddybear? 

Can it be that we retain hope at all costs because it is the only remaining buffer between ourselves and our pain that may be running deep just underneath the surface? Could it be that we hang onto hope so tightly because we are afraid that if we let it go we may find ourselves so immersed in our own pain that we may lose ourselves, never to return? 

Only a rare few choose to live their lives outside of a society which says "Watch this new show," "Try this new dessert," "Pray harder," "Stay busy." Relatively, only a handful will pack up and live a life of complete solitude in a monastery or nunnery. But this doesn't mean that we do not have a choice, here in our busy society and lives, to slow down, face our pain, to, for awhile, deny our distractions. 

Giving up the hope that we desperately cling to is the only way to be truly present. We must walk directly through our pain - not around it, above it, or below it - if we are to find some semblance of peace. A true friend is not someone who says "Get over it," or even "Tomorrow will be better." A true friend is someone who realizes they don't have magical solutions, instead choosing to gently walk alongside us as we journey through our pain.

Again, hope can be our enemy if it becomes a habitual way of avoiding our dark places directly and thoroughly. We must be right here, right now if we are to find deep healing. In her book When Things Fall Apart, Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön writes:

“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is it’s texture, color, and shape?
“We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.”
Those of us who have been or are going through dark times (that pretty much covers everyone, doesn't it?) tend to have terrible memories. We have been through sickness, trauma, abuse, the loss of family, friends, relationships, employment, our youth - and still when our next crisis hits us we inevitably forget that "Hey, I made it through that shit, and I survived." Why this lack of memory? Could it be that we have been too busy hoping for an easy way out, rather than choosing to be present in this very moment, this current shitty time? This is where perspective is essential. Giving up hope during our shitty times is not the same as being fatalistic. We can take a direct look at our grief, our pain, our loneliness, while realizing that, in one way or another, "this too shall pass." We would do ourselves a favour, though, by not rushing ourselves through the process. This shitty time may pass in a day, a week, or in a few months. We do not have to go through these moments alone. Understanding friends, family, or therapists can do wonders. They are the Sam to our Frodo.

The only way out is through. This requires determination, and letting go of the distractions that may hinder the process. It may mean letting go of hope.

Mark Andrew Nouwen