Hope: The thing with feathers


The most useful advice I received early in therapist training came from my first internship supervisor. If we accomplished nothing else in our initial sessions with clients, he said, “Instill hope. If they don’t have hope, they won’t come back.”

Hope is not the cure for everything that can go wrong, but it is the balm that eases much of our suffering. Under the clear light of hope, catastrophizing fails to convince, the fog of depression disperses, couples struggle through their troubles, despair diminishes, and those who have been defeated get up and try again. Charles R. Snyder, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, describes hopeful people as like the little engine that could, telling themselves, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Without hope, we are buffeted by our difficulties and can, sometimes irrevocably, lose our way. In its presence, almost anything is endurable.

The ancient Greeks understood the palliative quality of hope when they created the Pandora story. In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first mortal woman. She came to Earth – a peaceful, untroubled place –  with a box she was instructed never to open. But she also received the gift of curiosity. When she could no longer resist temptation, she opened the box to take a peek and all the evils of mankind escaped. Pandora quickly shut the box, but by then only one item remained inside: hope. Hope was unnecessary when life was free of pain and suffering, but once evils were released into the world, life would be unsustainable without it. Aggrieved by the consequences of her impetuousness, Pandora opened the box again and released it.

In the fall of 1998, when I was going to trial against the Albany doctors that had nearly killed me, I asked friends and family for objects to take with me to the trial, to remind me of them. My girlfriend, a poet, chose two poems, “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats, and Emily Dickinson’s poem about hope. During the two-week trial, I read both poems many times, Yeats to calm myself, Dickinson to continuously rekindle the hope not that I would prevail, but that when it was all over, I’d be able to close the book on that part of my life and move on. I’d awoken from the near-death experience with a sense of mission and a vision of what I could accomplish with the extra time I’d been granted, and that vision was still one I hoped to traverse. Waiting for the jury to return their verdict, by then reciting the Dickinson poem from memory, hope gave me the resolve to move ahead on that path, regardless of the trial’s outcome.

At about the same time, I became friends with the ex-husband of an artist acquaintance in Gloucester. He, too, had nearly died, and she thought we might have a lot to talk about. Our interconnections soon became much more intense and complex than just our mutual experiences with dying.

Eight years later, Robert killed himself. His death both devastated and perplexed me. He had been the older brother I’d never had, and I spent a long time trying to understand why I was still here, and he was not, when each of us had been through such similar experiences.

I may never know for sure the answer to that question, but I think one factor was how we looked at hope. Robert’s hope was dependent on outcome – he would recover his good looks, he would find a pretty, young girlfriend, he would sell a screenplay in L.A. – and when the future he hoped for seemed unlikely, he let go of life. My hopes were, and still are, more about achieving equanimity and the resilience to adapt to wherever life takes me.

I frequently think about my first supervisor’s comment about hope, the kind that urges us on when we feel we can’t continue, that provides us with a picture of how things can be when being where and who we are feels unbearable. How do we instill that hope in the hopeless, or in ourselves when we have lost it?

Although it has been a long time since I heard his advice, hope is still the foundation of my work. But most of what I do does not involve the theories and techniques of a therapist. Instilling hope takes only basic emotional skills such as empathy, acceptance, deep listening, and the patience to hold someone’s hope for them until they can take it back. More specifically, and in roughly this order, these actions seem to help:

Validating. “Yes, given what you are telling me, it makes sense that you feel this way.” Before we can accept help from anyone, we need to feel accepted by them. Although it may seem counterintuitive, validating feelings of hopelessness and despair and letting someone know, even in their darkest moments, that you accept them anyway, is often a welcoming and connecting relief.

Normalizing. “Anyone might feel this way, in your situation.” Neither minimizing nor exaggerating the severity of our problems when we feel hopeless helps to ground us and contributes to our feeling understood, cared about, and accepted.

Accompanying. “We can sort that out.” Showing willingness to accompany a hopeless person often produces a little light in his or her eyes. To accompany someone who is without hope, we need to feel empathy, but also to remain grounded, like the rocks along the coast buffeted by waves but not washed away. It helps to remember that we, too, have had dark nights of the soul, and we have recovered from them.

Mirroring. “I see how terrible you feel, but even so, I can sense your strength and courage.” If we can’t see our own light, we need others to see it for us and to gently reflect it back. This reflection is not a contradiction to the darkness, but a way to independently encourage it to shine.

Noticing. “You did that? Great!” When we are hopeless, we don’t notice the exceptions to despair. We need others to point them out. A cry for help indicates that hopelessness is not total. Taking the smallest volitional action pushes against the paralysis of hopelessness. I once worked with a client so deeply despairing that she no longer even watched television. Starting to watch again, changing the channel when she didn’t like what was on, was a first step toward her eventual recovery from suicidal depression. Noticing and pointing out these small, positive moves is akin to starting a fire with flint and steel. A tiny spark ignites a bit of carbonized cloth. Blowing on the smoldering cloth lights a small flame, and that flame ignites a nest of hemp. The flaming hemp sets ablaze pile of twigs. Eventually, a sustainable fire is thereby created.

Watering. “Wow, that’s a lot more than you were able to do last week!” The instillation of hope can’t take place without also instilling in the hopeless that they have what it takes to get through what they need to get through. Water the seeds of efficacy wherever they may show up. Often, I work out small “experiments” clients can try between sessions to challenge the limits hopelessness and helplessness have set.

Scaling. “On a scale of 1 to 10, where ‘1’ is how you felt when things were as bad as they ever were, and ‘10’ is how they’ll be when you’re really happy with your life, what’s your score these days?” Scaling is another tool to combat the inertia of hopelessness. Providing a means to evaluate progress reminds us that there is progress, and also helps us see what augments or hinders it.

Reminding. “It’s a yin/yang kind of thing.” As people come out of a period of hopelessness, encourage them to remember the signs of progress, so that their hopelessness cannot erase it if their mood shifts again. When they are doing well, ask them to remember their hopelessness, both to emphasize how far they’ve come and so that, should hopelessness resurface, it neither surprises nor convinces them.

Advising. Last and often least helpful is advice. Although most of us offer advice and encouragement to someone who feels hopeless, too early in the process, encouragement feels like we have not understood the magnitude of their troubles, and advice is rejected because hopeless people do not believe they can follow it, or that if they did, it would do any good. Save advice for much later, and then only if the person in recovery from hopelessness seeks it.

Hope, the “thing with feathers” in Emily Dickinson’s poem, can be a fragile thing in its early stages. Treat it with great care.

Discussion: Facebook Flower Mandalas page
Subscribe to the Flower Mandalas mailing list
Request the 15 Flower Mandalas screensaver (Windows only): Fifteen Flower Mandalas

Text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *