It feels almost reckless to experience the beginnings of hope for a post-pandemic future. I catch myself in a daydream, sitting in a packed booth with crowd sounds buzzing around me, while dear friends laugh loudly at a joke I just told (hey, it’s my daydream). Navigating the past year has involved a teetering balance between a heads-down, just get through today approach, and glancing briefly into an imagined joyful future.
In many who have suffered through painful experiences, especially in their early years, hope can feel dangerous, too vulnerable, over-exposed. Disappointment looms over this feeling like an unwelcome cloud in spring. Our brains are self-protective, and would rather live through imagined setbacks than be taken by surprise if our positive expectations are dashed. When I’m working with these individuals, one of my goals is to help them see more clearly the cost of suppressing hope to prevent sorrow or regret. Hope can be sustaining, and we cannot truly protect ourselves from experiencing disappointment or pain.
Early in the pandemic, at the edge of what my training and textbooks offered to cope with a worldwide, communal stressor, I went looking for guidance. One of the most helpful concepts I found surfaced in the writing of Dr. James Griffith, a professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at George Washington University. Designed as brief interventions to target demoralization in patients with chronic illness, Dr. Griffith teaches his psychiatry residents his concept of “Hope Modules” during their training.
Dr. Griffith writes “Demoralization is not itself a mental illness but rather a normal human response to circumstances perceived as overwhelming.” He goes on to describe hope as a “natural antidote for demoralization.” He defines hope not as something you feel, but rather as something you do. “Hope,” he states “can be practiced by locating a deep desire, value, or commitment and taking a step towards it.”
I found this last statement so profound, I wrote it on a post-it and keep it on my desk. I often share this definition with patients, and have personally found comfort in its active approach to adversity. Instead of waiting to feel hope, we can practice this emotion by “facing, embracing, and engaging adversity, rather than avoiding, submitting, or withdrawing.” Who among us doesn’t need to hear this message repeatedly during these difficult days?
As they work to modify the concept of hope from a feeling to an action, students of Dr. Griffith learn to ask their struggling patients two open-ended questions. First, “How did this affect you?” In other words, what did this event or experience disrupt or take away from your life? The second question they ask is, “How did you respond?”
Often this first question brings up feelings of loss, vulnerability or traumatic memories. The second, however, begins to identify coping skills that have allowed that individual to survive difficult experiences in the past, and may again be helpful to “mobilize hope.”
If you try this exercise on your own, asking yourself, “How did this affect me?” followed by, “How did I respond?” you can begin to recognize the different emotions each question evokes. Consider the way you have responded to adversity. Did you reach out to loved ones, community networks or mentors? Did you incorporate activities to help manage your difficult emotions, such as meditation, yoga, or spiritual practices? Did you sit down with a pen and paper to diagram your best path forward?
When I reflected on the times in my past I might prefer to overlook—missteps, failures, painful losses and heartbreak—I began to notice my own patterns of coping. For example, when I have felt most lost and insecure, the books on my desk start to pile up as I look for answers in the voices of writers, poets, and other artists. Like John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, my music library is best organized autobiographically, with dark times reflected in minor keys and morose lyrics. If I can just understand why I’m feeling this way through the words of others, I can start to rise out of my misery.
In no way do I suggest this coping strategy is right for everyone. Rather, I describe it to illustrate one path for a single individual. You need to figure out what resonates when you allow such reflection. Then, with this deeper understanding of your natural coping strategies, you can intentionally place energy into cultivating these skills. You are learning to practice hope as an action to build a more resilient self.
If hope is indeed a verb, it's possible for all of us to seek its bolstering effect. You have survived difficult times in the past, and in this current situation you can benefit from increased self-knowledge about how you did it. As Glennon Doyle writes in her beautiful memoir, Untamed, (and this is also on a nearby post-it) “We can do hard things.”