Hope is not an emotion

This past year has taught me a precious lesson. I have, for many years, grossly misunderstood the nature of hope. And the more I longed for my imaginary version of hope, the more elusive hope became.

Hope, as it turns out, is as misunderstood as love. Like love, hope isn’t an emotion. In fact, hope doesn’t have to feel good in the least. Like love, hope is a choice and a commitment. A commitment to what? A commitment to keep choosing the path of life — in spite of feeling hopeless.

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Ink

When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression about three years ago, I came to believe that one does not simply choose to have hope. Those seasons of unspeakable, impenetrable internal darkness convinced me that sometimes, one is completely robbed of the capacity to have any hope at all. As such, I began taking for granted this notion that the only way to get out of those psychoemotional abysses was to hang in there and “wait it out”.

I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work. Sometimes, staying alive in itself can get so difficult that that’s all the work you can do. With your loved ones standing by your side and giving you just enough to not quit on life, and you dutifully taking your prescribed medication, the storm eventually dissipates, and you start to see the light again, and you find reason to get back on your feet.

But over the course of my last depressive episode, I noticed something rather peculiar. It started when my therapist told me, “You know, at some point, you’re going to get tired of despairing, and you’re going to want to do something.” This was after many sessions of me walking in simply because it gave me something to do, while remaining unreceptive and unwilling to acknowledge that things could get better. My first reaction to her remark was of annoyance and anger. Get TIRED of despairing? You make it sound like I’m choosing to despair. You make it sound like I know some kind of alternative to this terrible existence. But deep beneath all that maudlin angst, I knew she was on to something.

I was noticing that there comes a time when despair becomes your comfort zone. Comfort zone?! Yes, a very uncomfortable comfort zone, but a comfort zone nonetheless. It’s that zone where you’re no longer thrashing, kicking, writhing, screaming — but you’re floating in that murky, slushy, stinky cesspool of despair. Despairing, loathing, and bemoaning your existence has be come second nature, and the thought of recovery is actually scary. Despair is familiar; recovery is foreign. Not wanting to live has been your default state of being for so long that learning how to live again is intimidating.

Niedergedrueckt
‘Niedergedrückt’ by Melancho Blumenbunt

I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.

This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point. Of course, I didn’t make an instant 180 to start making tangible progress — I continued hemming and hawing for a while — the bad cognitive and behavioral habits that develop over months of despairing are so difficult to shake off. But there came a day when I decided I would find a way to start moving again. No, not because I felt better, not because I received a sign from heaven that all issues would be resolved. Simply because I realized I had nothing to lose.

It’s funny how that works. The flip-side of despairing about virtually everything is realizing that you have nothing to lose. And suddenly, you find there’s this untapped reservoir of boldness welling up within you. Call it tragic optimism, or a just darn clever biological mechanism that kicks you in the direction of recovery, but you can choose to ride that wave, or choose to continue thrashing.

It became a psychological discipline to bat away negative thoughts, especially about myself. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden knowing what’s true and what’s false. Instead, the inner dialogue sounded a lot more like this: I know, I know, I’m useless and stupid… But I’m gonna be radically okay with it, and see how far I can go. And so I go about my my day having shelved that particular thought. I read a book, I go for the job interview, I enter into a conversation I would typically have avoided. Oh, yes, and I’m a cruel, heartless, wretched human being undeserving of love… But you know what? People seem okay with it. Let’s see how long I can go before I’m exposed. And again, I go about my day, agreeing to meet a friend, or attending a get-together instead of making excuses to stay home. Oh wait — how about the fact that I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely misery and will never find happiness? Soon enough, I started being able to say, oh just shut up already. 

Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride. We despair because we are unable to accept ourselves and our lives, or we believe the world cannot accept us, or both. It’s not an easy decision to make, but when we choose radical acceptance, magic happens. Slowly but surely, I started experiencing improvements in my mood. The more I put myself out there in spite of the forces threatening to engulf me, the more the clouds began to clear. My thoughts became more realistic, my emotions more stable, and my social anxiety markedly reduced. I became less inward-focused and could start loving and caring for other people again. At the very core of it, I came to recognize the inherent good of being alive once more.

And so I learned that you don’t sit around waiting to feel hopeful. Often, we imagine hope to mean seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, when it’s more like digging, grasping, and clawing your way through the dirt until you see the light. Hope is hard work. To decide that you are willing to try is a huge victory over despair, a huge cause for celebration for the people who have been rooting for you, and the beginning of a scary but empowering journey.

Hope is courageous: it is letting go of the dogged notion that you need X, Y, and Z to live, and being willing to attempt forging a new path. Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible. Hope is radical: it is a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others (you know, the “happy, productive, and functional” folks), and focusing on doing what you can do in a given moment.

And finally, you may or may not agree, but I believe that true, lasting hope requires faith. I know that any of my efforts to reject the voices of my inner demons would have been unsustainable without faith in a loving and merciful God. What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.

I thank God for the gift of faith, and for loved ones who, having exhausted creative means to motivate me, beseech me to turn to God.

We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.

–Pope John Paul II

Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. 🙂

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27 thoughts on “Hope is not an emotion”

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. Two close friends have had family members commit suicide in the last month and they’re left lost, trying to understand on any level. This doesn’t (nothing can, probably) give me any better words to say to them, but it’s a beautifully written peek through a window into depression.

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    1. I’m so sorry to hear about that… I know someone who lost her father to suicide, and many years later she’s still confused about why he did that. Oftentimes I believe they are experiencing a completely different reality, in which suicide truly feels like the best possible option, not just for themselves but also the loved ones the wish to burden no longer. We can entrust their souls to our loving, compassionate, and merciful God who knew exactly the darkness they were experiencing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so profound! Thank you for writing with such courage. Your words of hope so lift the spirit!!
    “What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.”

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  3. I have read about depression, but never had presented in such an immediate way the thought patterns that accompany it. With this post’s focus on the psychology of recovery, I was unprepared for the conclusion, but given that feel far more comfortable making this declaration:

    “Congratulations on the success that you have earned in your struggle for SELF-POSSESSION.”

    And all praise to him who stands ready in our hearts for that moment when our minds are finally ready to surrender control. I have always understood hope as a connection to a future in which love is at work for us. He’s always there knocking at the door. We only have to open it.

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    1. “All praise to him who stands ready in our hearts for that moment when our minds are finally ready to surrender control.” Beautiful written, and how very true! Thank you so much for your encouraging words. 🙂

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  4. I have found that praying, even when I don’t have any heart to place into that prayer, even though I don’t feel it, helps. Sometimes I just say to my Higher Power, “Whatever. Your will. Help me.”

    Your thoughts on hope are so helpful! We are so often emotion-driven, even while our emotions are destroying us. But our emotions are not the truth of us. Hope and love are! Thank you for your words, and for making the decision to act with nothing to lose. Peace.

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    1. I think it takes a great deal of courage to be able to say, “Whatever. Your will. Help me.” It sounds like defeat and utter desperation, but there is so much courage in completely surrendering to God, asking Him to do what He deems best, rather than begging and insisting on one particular outcome. I know from experience that that act of letting go is the last obstacle between us and the beginning of recovery. To desperately and obstinately cling to our heart’s desires while in a state of depression is akin to tightening the very knots we wish to undo. Thank you so much for your encouraging words and beautiful insights as well. Hope and love indeed. I will remember that! 🙂

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  5. Wonderful blog, great writing.. just read ‘Following Atticus’ by Tom Ryan who shares an amazing friendship with a small Schnauzer and they have incredible story – hiking togethor through the White Mountains of New Hampshire

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  6. Fantastic post! This reminds me of my psychiatrist telling me to deal with it. He said I’m walking around the world looking for answers where there are none. He said I’m bipolar and trying to live like I don’t have bipolar. He told me once I’m not giving you any more meds or changes, you have to deal with your depression, anxiety, mania, irrability
    and once I did that I realized it sucked. But like you I started living with it and living in a more positive acting way, but there are days I want to stay in bed. When I was in the hospital I was feeling very anxious waiting for my parents to come and get me. I asked the social worker what to do and she said ride it out. That was a new and difficult concept for me. Have a great day😊

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  7. So …God knows just when you need to read something in your inbox 😉 …Thank you so much for these words. They were needed tonight! Thanks for being open and real with all of us out here and in some wild and wonderful way, walking with us! Your words matter!

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  8. About eight years ago, I went through what I refer to as “my year from hell.” I was in such a dark, dark place. There are so many variables that contributed to my depression, and so much I learned throughout the course of that year, but I still haven’t brought myself to write about it on my blog. I was in so much pain, but I don’t think anyone around me (even now) could understand how much pain I was in. I don’t think I could find the words to sufficiently describe what I was feeling. Since then, I’ve fallen into dark periods (Postpartum depression after my son was born), but nothing as severe as that year from hell.

    Even though in the midst of it all, I prayed every day that God would take the pain away, I can look back on it now and see how He was working in me and how He was chiseling away to make me into someone who would be better able to reflect Him. The line that struck me the most was when you said, “Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride.”

    Just as there are many reasons for me falling into that dark place, there are just as many complex reasons for my figuring out how to get out of it. One epiphany moment for me was figuring out that my self-loathing, self-pity, and all the other self-stuff that I was suffering from was a reflection of my pride. I had been thinking of myself as so humble (It was those arrogant people who were prideful, right? Not me.), that I failed to realize that my intense focus on self was a form of pride. When I started to focus outward, things started to get better. It’s hard for me to say this, because I never want to give someone the impression that it’s not okay to grieve. Whenever we have a lost expectation it’s definitely okay to grieve. Grieving is a healthy process to go through. But I haven’t quite put my finger on where the line is. Maybe someday I’ll have the courage to write about it and try to explain it more completely.

    In the meantime, thank you so much for writing so eloquently about what that dark, dark place feels like and how you managed to cross to the other side.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Jonas' Essential Matters and commented:
    In this Easter season, I want to share this post on hope by “Under Reconstruction.” I can relate to Karen’s account of her despair and the faith in God. It reminds me of a discussion at Scripture class this semester. Father Peter Grover, OMV commented that hope is the toughest thing sometimes because hope depends on someone else (God) coming through. This is my favorite part of the post: “Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible.”

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  10. Karen, what a great post. Would you mind if I quoted this line from above: “I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.

    This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point.”
    in something I’m writing? I will be happy to credit you and give a link to your blog as well as send you a copy of the finished product. And way to go!!

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  11. Thanks for posting this! I have had struggles with feeling hopelessness, and it was helpful to read about your strategies for overcoming destructive thoughts. I liked how you mentioned just starting to add a positive spin to your negative thoughts instead of leaping to entirely positive thoughts before you were ready. It is so easy to shut down hopeful ideas when we are despairing, but it is harder to stop a thought that is just one step in the right direction. This was great!

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  12. Thank you for writing this. I can definitely relate to what you are writing about and being in a funk myself, you have given me hope! You are a very articulate writer and can describe the thoughts I can’t quite put my finger on. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words! 🙂 I think we can do that by not departing and sticking particularly close when others are losing hope, and also by living a life that testifies to the power of hope!

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