Building Hope in a Time of Despair
A global pandemic, an inflammatory political landscape, distorted facts, economic uncertainty. Health problems, money problems.
How can you have hope?
What Is Hope?
On PositivePsychology.com, Elaine Houston writes a fabulously informative overview (with helpful exercises) into the field of Hope Psychology. She writes: “According to Snyder et al. (1991) hope is a positive cognitive state based on a sense of successful goal-directed determination and planning to meet these goals. In other words, hope is like a snap-shot of a person’s current goal-directed thinking, highlighting the motivated pursuit of goals and the expectation that those goals can be achieved.”
I’m not a psychologist.
Moreover, I’m not a very “hopeful” person by natural inclination. Some people might have hope, the way they have brown eyes or dimples. But me? I don’t have any of those things. So, what do I have to tell you about hope? Quite a bit, I hope.
Because hope doesn’t come naturally to me, I’ve had to learn it. I’ve studied it and practiced it the way elementary school kids practice for a spelling test. Memorization and rote repetition. I’ve sought it through spiritual examination, psychotherapy, reading and concerted efforts to change my thinking and behavior. If you can forgive a sizable amount of autobiography, I’ll share with you the most important lesson I’ve come to learn about hope.
You can’t have hope (which is sad). But, on the flip side, you can’t lose hope (that’s a relief!). The reason for this is: real “hope” is a verb. If you want to have it, you have to do it.
In 2013, I was wheeled into the operating room and greeted by the usual crew: nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologist, all gowned, gloved, goggled and masked beyond recognition. After 13 surgeries (or was it 15?), I knew the drill. But this time there was someone new: a burly man with dark hair crisply parted and plastered to his head. His hands were beefy, his physique muscular. He wore a black, rubber apron that hung all the way to his shins.
As I fell into unconsciousness, I realized who he was and why he was new to the scene: He was the bonecutter. He would be sawing off my leg.
The Backstory, Abridged
Growing up, my most persistent dream (between singer-actress-veterinarian-ice skater) was to travel and explore distant, unknown countries. Exotic places with elaborate fabrics and strange clothing and customs. Foreign languages that rolled through my brain like music notes. Spices and seasonings that exploded on my tongue and gave my taste buds lessons in flavor. Connecting with strangers across the chasm of different cultures, nationalities and languages. Finding friends everywhere I went.
In 2009 I was doing that. I’d traveled and volunteered all over Central America and had just settled down to a job teaching English in Guatemala. I took a “shortcut,” climbed over a garden wall and a when I landed, the world turned into a cartoon. Literally, my visual field was suddenly animated like a Bugs Bunny cartoon and the bones of my left ankles were dangling out of the skin like noodles.
That began a tour of hospitals and operating rooms that would last four years. The journey took me to three hospitals in Guatemala and four back in the US. It wasn’t just the structural damage to the bones that needed to be fixed. Infection blossomed, threatening not just my leg but my life. It ate away skin, bone, muscle that all had to be surgically repaired or replaced. Muscle grafts, skin grafts, orthopedic surgeries, wheelchairs, hospital beds.
I learned to take a shit in a bowl on top of a bed while monitors reported my constipated progress to nurses on the other side of a curtained window. Beep, beep, BEEEEEEP, beep. With my mother’s help (who I now lived with), I learned to bathe with IV tubes in my arm or tunneled in above my collarbone directly into my heart. I learned to give myself daily IV infusions for months at a time, to “pack” wounds and pull out the strand of pus-covered gauze the way a magician pulls out that endless scarf of bright colors.
After two years, I thought the infection was conquered. And then it wasn’t. And then it was, but there were new infections. I still needed more surgeries, but the majority of my surgeries seemed to lead to more infection. I was thirty-one. I wanted to return to my truncated dream of international work or start a family with an incredible man I had fallen in love with. But I was a full-time patient, dependent on my mother for help with laundry, grocery shopping and paying bills.
So I made an appointment with the bonecutter.
Cutting Off the Problem at its Source
I would amputate my leg and be able to move on. No more surgeries. No more infections. No more pain. I’d get a blissfully artificial leg, a clean slate with none of the destruction that the fractures and infections had inflicted on my mortal leg. Right?
You probably can guess what happened.
I was learning to walk with my temporary prosthetic leg. I even went sledding! But I was so weak, I had to lean on the bathroom counter to brush my teeth. Walking down those surreal-dream, vortex hallways of hospital clinics to a follow-up appointment made my heart race so fast I had to lay down on the exam table.
Staph infection in my stump.
The very things I thought I was avoiding by cutting off my leg now lay ahead of me:
- A future of daily IV treatments that made me feel horrid. (I actually don’t have any words for how much I loathed how those treatments made me feel.)
- More pain.
- More surgeries.
- More being dependent on other people for things I had been doing for myself since a teenager.
I had sacrificed my leg, apparently for nothing. And I had no hope. I. Had. No. Hope.
There was no part of my brain that honestly believed the treatments would work. I had spent much of the past four years doing those exact treatments and look where I was now!
I couldn’t even picture a future where things were any better.
I had anxiety attacks often, my heart racing desperately in my chest like a wild bird trapped on the inside of a window. I sat out a friend’s baby shower, crying in my hallway, because I couldn’t find any place in me to summon a smile for her, even a shallow “congratulations.
So this is what I did: I got up every day and did the things I was supposed to. I went to doctor’s appointments, performed whatever reduced work I could do at my job, wrote checks, showed up like a mannequin with no life spark inside. At Happy Hour gatherings or birthday celebrations, someone could’ve put a cardboard cutout of me in the chair, and it would’ve felt the same. I went to physical therapy. I went to counseling.
Never once did I believe any of it would do any good.
Hope Is a Charade – But That’s Not a Bad Thing
Little by little, “step” (crutch) by “step” (crutch). I created hope. I acted it out. I performed it with actions the way a mime creates a physical setting entirely with his movements. I was blessed to have a small but loving support network that I’m grateful for. Still, they couldn’t “give” me hope. Their support was to me what a life preserver is to a shipwreck victim: it will hold you afloat, but it won’t get you to shore.
Each day, with each action I performed – even from the canyon of hopelessness in my mind – hope accumulated.
By the time the treatments were finished, somehow, unbeknownst to me, I had become… hopeful.
And, lo and behold, the treatments had worked! The infection was gone. I began walking on a prosthetic leg, then biking, yoga-ing, traveling internationally and raising children (which means: “chasing children”) on a prosthetic leg. I began that “motivated pursuit of goals and the expectation that those goals can be achieved” that Snyder talks about.
If You Only Learn One Thing About Hope
It turns out hope doesn’t care whether or not you believe in it. Hope only cares if you do it.
You don’t have hope.
You create hope.
You nurture hope.
You build hope.
You do hope.