Even for a born optimist like me, it’s been very hard to stay positive this year. Just as I surface from the latest bout of bad news, a new wave of sadness or fear washes over me, threatening to push me back under. It’s all too much. And many of the things that might normally buoy my spirits—our weekly neighborhood potluck, praying and singing at church, or just hugging a friend—have not been possible.
2020 has beaten us all down. How can we maintain hope that things will ever get better?
I have come to realize that hope is the combination of FAITH and ACTION. Faith, for me, comes from my Christian beliefs, but also from past experience: On a large scale, studying plagues, wars, and persecutions, we can see humanity’s eventual resilience. And on a personal level, I can look back and see that things have always worked out for me, even if it wasn’t in the timeframe or manner that I’d hoped. After all, I’m still here. (But I readily acknowledge that as a middle-class, educated white person, it’s that much easier for me.)
But then there’s the action part. We can’t just passively wait for some outside force to make us feel better and to solve the dire crises we now face. We have to do something to help improve our outlook or our world.
In other words, hope means BELIEVING things will get better, and then doing our part to MAKE them better.
To that end, I’ve enrolled myself in my own personal “Hope School.” I certainly haven’t been consistent in following the teachings of my wise friends and heroes, and I’ve spent plenty of time wallowing and perseverating instead of doing my homework. But when I can get up the strength to climb out of my own little pit, here are a few of the lessons they’ve taught me…
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
– Desmond Tutu
It’s a cliché, but it really does help. The last thing I do in the evening, it helps me go to sleep with a heart full of renewed hope in the goodness of the world, instead of worries that will be the ingredients of nightmares
Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed with bad news, it’s hard to even get started. But if I can grudgingly come up with just one little blessing, that shifts my perspective a tiny bit and reminds me of more. One recent day, the only positive event I could recall was hearing children’s laughter in my street that afternoon. But then I remembered that I was enjoying a cup of my favorite ice cream when I heard them, and that when I looked outside, a passing neighbor waved at me. I wouldn’t say the floodgates of gratitude open, but a trickle becomes a stream, and once again I’m reminded that good things can and will happen in our world.
Reading the obituaries
It’s not the pastime only of the elderly who are checking who they’ve outlived that week (although I’m approaching that point). The span of someone’s life condensed into a few paragraphs is a blatant reminder of what has given joy and satisfaction, and that these are the things I should be focusing on.
It puts my troubles into perspective as I read about folks who’ve lived through war, internment, or the deaths of spouses or children, and still kept plugging away. And the charming anecdotes that are told remind me how our positive efforts can have a lasting impact, even if they might seem inconsequential: sharing homegrown tomatoes with your neighbors, bringing your famous casserole to every family reunion, adopting a dog. This gives me faith that every good thing we do in our lives has some effect.
Participating in a faith community
Church has been an important part of my life since I was a kid (with, okay, a break for a little wandering and searching in my 20’s). Even when it’s just on Zoom, it fills me up in so many ways: I express my gratitude to a higher power, I re-center and quiet my mind, and I get great joy from the music.
But my faith is also revived by the community of my church. It’s a loving, motley crew of folks who believe that God is our source of “big-picture” hope, but also that we need to do our part to create hope: showing up for the needy and unloved, keeping our minds open and curious, showing compassion, taking a quilt or some soup to the sick, wishing a happy birthday to the Sunday school kids.
“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” wrote Emily Dickinson, and although hers was a metaphor, I find the actual “things with feathers” invariably raise my spirits. This spring as our world closed down, a highlight of my days was hearing the cry of an osprey, signaling his return to the top of a nearby cedar.
The way the birds go about their days, unaware of a pandemic, reminds me to focus on the task or pleasure at hand like they do, and to not get overwhelmed by worries. (And I try not to dwell on the fact that these days my brain is a virtual sieve, so bird names and attributes I learn one day are forgotten by the next.)
“Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”
– Jonas Salk
I’ve found hope in three types of books during the pandemic. First, in books that are literally about faith. Anne Lamott’s are my favorite–funny, irreverent, and poetic:
Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair
Second, in stories of prisoners who stayed strong in captivity and, sometimes, were eventually released (apropos during our pandemic stay-at-home orders):
Bel Canto (Anne Patchett)
A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)
And third, in memoirs and stories that show the resilience of the human spirit. When I read about characters who triumph over adversity—whether today or in the Middle Ages–I’m reminded that others have suffered and triumphed, and a bigger lens of history or geography puts my problems in perspective. A few of my recent favorites in this vein:
German Boy: A Child in War (Wolfgang W.E. Samuel)
Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)
Holes (Louis Sachar)
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country (Pam Houston)
The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri)
The Prince and the Pauper (Mark Twain)
The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Avi)
Such a Fun Age (Kiley Reid)
“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
– Barack Obama
It couldn’t be easier to be a literal lifesaver. During the pandemic, hospitals in my area have been short of the blood patients needed. All I have to do is put up with a quick needle poke and lay there. I leave with a free cookie and the knowledge that I’ve helped someone in a concrete way.
Tending a garden
Planting a tree is an obvious act of faith in the future—that it will grow through good times and bad; that life will go on. But it’s also a gift of hope and joy to others.
Walks around my neighborhood and in public gardens during the pandemic have revived my joy and my sense of comradeship with my fellow gardeners and garden-appreciators. And planting and pruning in my own yard have given me a small sense of satisfaction that I am creating a more beautiful little corner of the world. Plus, it inspires connection: A conversation opener is right at hand when I spot someone working in their yard. How did you keeping the rabbits from munching those tulips? What’s your secret to such lush zucchini vines? (The zucchini I attempted to grow were a bust. Who fails at growing zucchini?!)
Focusing on a few causes I’m most passionate about
With so many people and problems crying out for help, it’s hard to stay hopeful. And my easily-distractable brain tends to jump despairingly and uselessly from one cause to another. But I’ve started to accept that my impact is stronger if I focus my efforts on just a few of my top priorities. I can’t save the world singlehandedly (and the Serenity Prayer should be tattooed on my forehead to help me remember this), but when I band together with others who care, and we cobble together each person’s own particular talent or skill, we can create change.
Whatever it is you’re good at, there’s a social movement, an environmental project, a program for veterans or refugees or preschoolers that could use your help. I’m your gal if the cause needs a heart-tugging donation letter written, or a student tutored, or a board position filled…but when it requires accounting, or mechanics, or a loud rally-worthy voice, then I’m counting on you, friends, to bring your complementary skills to the table.
Taking care of myself
This is hard for me to do guilt-free, but I know it’s important to rest and revive myself. Then I can return to the fray with energy to take care of my family and to work on some larger issues in the world. I’ve found that morning meditation and evening jigsaw puzzling calm and refresh me with renewed purpose.
Nature: the quintessential hope-reviver. My daughter has kept up her spirits during the pandemic, and found a great sense of satisfaction and joy, with early-morning mountain hikes several days a week. Family and friends have taken up new (safely solo) sports—rowing, biking, stand-up paddleboarding. My own exertion is more modest: long walks, paddling a canoe, scenic drives.
Either way, witnessing nature’s cycle of deaths and rebirths is another way to be reminded that life does go on. Being in nature clears my mind so I can come up with new solutions, and refreshes me for continued work. And my awe in the presence of something greater than myself—a breathtaking sunrise, mountains, or wildlife—reminds me that I’m just a tiny interconnected part of a vast, (mostly) wonderful world shared with seven billion equally important humans.
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” – Anne Lamott
In these hard times, how have YOU found hope, maintained hope, shared hope?