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You can’t teach hope
But you can cultivate it.
Earlier this year, an editor reached out to me about a possible series for a national publication. She was open to ideas, and I pitched a monthly column about hope. Each piece would be loosely pegged to a topic in the news, I suggested, and I’d interview a different subject expert or deep thinker for their take.
We could call it “How to be hopeful,” I added.
The editor liked the idea and organized a brainstorming meeting with a couple of her colleagues. The conversation went well, but I left feeling unsure about the concept.
Hope is what gives us the motivation to create a better tomorrow. As Rebecca Solnit put it, “To hope is to give yourself to the future—and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
There are lots of pressing issues in the world right now: the pandemic, climate change, poverty and income inequality, and wars and other conflicts, to name a few. Considering the enormity of any of these things, much less all of them, can spark an existential crisis. If you think about it too hard, it’s easy to feel hopeless.
So how could I write about believing in a future that can seem so bleak?
I worried that a series about how to be hopeful wouldn’t come close to tackling the reality of these giant problems. I was nervous that a national audience would, at best, ignore the advice or, at worst, berate me for offering it. I feared that I would come off as pollyannaish and out of touch. On top of it all, I thought the gig didn’t pay enough for the work involved.
Those concerns all mattered, but there was something else—something I couldn’t quite articulate—that was stopping me from pursuing the hope idea. After some consideration, I thanked the editor, then told her I wouldn’t be writing the series.
Last week, in what some people might have called a hopeless time, the United States held midterm elections. Many pundits and news outlets predicted a so-called “red wave” of overwhelming Republican support, but that didn’t materialize. Democrats retained control of the U.S. Senate, while the fate of the House currently remains to be resolved. Voters turned out in strong support of issues like reproductive rights, climate action, and preserving democracy.
“The results from the election make me feel like I can breathe again,” Sweet Dumb Brain reader Gayla shared in a comment. “The strife in this country isn’t over, but for a least a little while, I see a glimmer of hope.”
A glimmer of hope. The optimistic part of me loves that. Yes! We all need glimmers of hope. But the pessimistic part of me can’t help but point out that it’s just that—a glimmer—in a time when it feels like we need so much more.
Hope is a feeling, one that plays an important role in our mental wellbeing. Researchers have found that hope lessens psychological troubles like depression and anxiety and helps us heal from trauma. Hope gives us a sense of possibility. Hope is knowing that the future's uncertain—and believing that that’s a good thing.
There have been a few moments in my life when I’ve felt utterly hopeless.
Two years ago last week, I was admitted to a mental ward for postpartum psychosis. Just three weeks into my daughter’s life, I was separated from her. I spent three days in the hospital and, thanks to COVID protocols, couldn’t see my baby, partner, or mom, who was visiting from out of state.
My breast milk turned to a watery trickle. My mind felt like mush. I spent my time sleeping or doing laps around the halls. There was little else to do in a place where they took away books, pens, cell phones, or any other welcome distractions.
When I returned home, I felt unmoored. The fact that I’d been in a mental hospital felt like my secret shame to bear. I was less than a month into motherhood and worried I’d already failed, in a spectacular way. I felt more unsure than ever of my new responsibility to raise a child.
As time went on, though, I began to gain confidence as a mother. My breastmilk supply returned, though never to a point where I could solely feed my baby. I told a few friends about what had happened and how scary it was. I sang to my daughter, read to her, witnessed her first smile, and held her close as we took walks around the neighborhood.
With each new day, I felt a little more competent as a parent and a little more compassionate to myself in regards to the trauma I’d experienced. With each new day, I felt a little more hope.
Last week, I was thinking about my experience with postpartum psychosis as I walked my daughter home from preschool. As I pushed her stroller along, she turned around to look up at me. “Mama?” she said.
“Yes, honey?” I snapped back to reality—a place far away from that mental hospital.
“I’m happy!” she shouted, then turned back around, smiling.
In that moment, what was once a glimmer of hope burst into a giant ray of light.
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For a while, I wondered if the reason I decided not to write that series was because hope isn’t exactly on trend these days. In light of all the world’s problems, it can feel more sophisticated to embrace nihilism—to proclaim that we’re all doomed.
In the end, though, I realized that the premise of the series was all wrong. I couldn’t write about how to be hopeful because hope isn’t something that can be taught. If someone had tried to instruct me how to be hopeful in the hazy aftermath of psychosis, for example, I would have likely rejected their help. I had to find the path forward on my own.
As humans, I believe we naturally default towards hope. We get up each day. We do things to better ourselves and our communities. We keep going, despite not knowing what’s ahead.
Activist Mariame Kaba famously described hope as a discipline. I also believe that’s true. Hope might come to us naturally, but holding onto hope—cultivating hope—requires work and mindfulness.
I’m glad that Gayla felt a glimmer of hope last week. I did, too. Perhaps you did as well. It might just be a glimmer, but it’s a start.
From here, we can take that feeling and use it for good. We can do things that help us hold onto that hope. We can volunteer for that cause we’ve been wanting to join. We can make that call we’ve been avoiding to a lonely relative. We can adopt that change to our routine that will help reduce our carbon footprint. We can keep getting out of bed, keep singing songs and reading books, and keep holding each other close.
Before we know it, that glimmer just might turn into a bright ray of light.