Hope’s Double Edge

Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA
Individual and Group Psychotherapy

What’s there not to love about hope?

It’s one of those feel-good concepts. Dreaming about a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

In fact, we welcome hope so that we ritualize her into the fabric of our lives. We get to kiss a tired, worn day good-bye and rise to the dawn of an unchartered day … seven days a week, 365 a year. We toot horns on New Year’s Eve and blow candles out every birthday in great anticipation for all the good things we imagine ahead. We birth babies who then carry all our fantasies into their yet-to-be-lived lives. Advertisements bombard us with expectation that this product, this medicine or this opportunity will make us a better, happier, richer or healthier person. And when life kicks us in the teeth, it is often desire for that better day tomorrow that keeps us keeping on.

No question, hope is essential for the survival of the human spirit. Hope is the necessary ingredient for an optimistic future. Without it, we can move to that place of resigned despair that can accompany the darkness of depression and self-destruction. But out of context, hope can be misleading and even harmful. It can prevent us from living life on life’s terms in a present and full manner. Allow me to expound:

Hope without realistic evidence is denial.

Sometimes, the marriage cannot be saved. Sometimes, cancer wins. Sometimes, character flaws carry a poor prognosis. Hanging on to false hope grounds us in denial and stalls the process of accepting reality on reality’s terms. Learning when to keep holding on tightly with both hands clenched and when to pry back our fingers and finally let go … that is one dance we must stumble through in life. And sadly, it does not come with an instruction manual. Hope without action is passivity. It is one thing to dream but it is quite
another to put one’s feet to the fire and make it happen. Hope is not an excuse to do nothing – to sit and to wait as if we have front row tickets to a magic show. But rather, true hope demands hard work, goal-setting and perseverance through fear, risk, criticism and failure. Hope alone can prevent necessary action when it needs to be the fire that fuels it.

Hope, without an honest evaluation of our limitations, is grandiosity.

Let’s face it … I am never going to win an Olympic medal. Never gonna get him to love me again. Never gonna have another baby. Never gonna erase the mistakes of my past. There are some things, many things, that are not within my reach. I can try with all my stubborn will, but it is futile. I have only wasted my time, breath and energy hoping for the impossible rather than working toward the realistic. Without an honest, and perhaps harsh assessment of my limits, I cannot embrace the me that I am now. Humility means facing my truth and recognizing what I can and what I cannot do. Accepting my limits gives me the freedom to flow with the current of life rather than spending useless energy trying to fight against it.

Contrarily, I wonder if hope is most hopeful when it is paired with surrender. I think St. Francis got this idea. His famous serenity prayer speaks to this exact paradox “… to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

May compassion be your companion as life keeps you engaged in the struggle of knowing when either to hold on to hope for dear life or to find hope in the hopelessness. Because, sometimes the path to peace is letting go.

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