Finding Hope When There Is None

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Written by Holly Chuang, Clinical Intern

I’m one of those therapists of the belief that there is always hope, hope that a person’s experience of life can get better.  I have felt like there was no hope before, and in my search for hope, learned to look for a source outside of myself.  Now, when my clients are at their lowest, I try and help them see where they can go for hope.  Sometimes, all they need to know is that the search for hope is a spiritual search, and they can go to powers outside of themselves, if they so choose.

I had a client, we’ll call him Brett, who spent months depressed about his career and unemployment.  We worked on skills to cope with his depression, and he was able to make progress in his search, but the months went on.  Finally, he expressed that he had no hope, and I asked him what he could hold on to, to get him through.  He replied with conviction that he could hold onto his successes from the past.  He planned to work twice as hard and double his efforts the upcoming week.

His answer surprised me in that it was much of what he had already tried.  Sometimes, I meet individuals like Brett who find hope in reassuring themselves of their own abilities.  They tell themselves that hope is earned, a product of what they deserve.  So, they better double down on discipline if they want to feel better!  To them, the task at hand is to push away thoughts of doubt and find hope in their past achievements.

Like Brett, I often fall into this dependence on myself.  I feel hopeless about receiving the social contact I need, achieving the grades I want, or gaining the fitness I imagine.  Then, I resolve to keep in touch with friends during quarantine, do supplemental readings on school break, or subscribe to a new fitness app.  This sort of hope in my flurry of activity lasts only until I start feeling lonely despite calling friends, like an impostor despite my studies, or too petite despite my health.  Earning hope is exhausting, and maybe that is why it paradoxically leaves a person void of hope.

It appeared that Brett was in a lonely place, where he was exhausted but felt safest depending on his own abilities.  I could understand why.  Our own abilities are concrete and dependable, predictable and familiar.  We have a sense of control of our outcomes.  In contrast, finding hope in spiritual power requires trusting that we will be taken care of even if we are not in control, and not everyone wants to take that risk.

It felt silly, but I brought up a pop culture reference to introduce the idea of spiritual power to Brett.  I shared with him that I used to watch The Ellen Show religiously, and she would always close the show with, “Be kind to one another.”  I told him that, for some people, a belief in something like the power of kindness can be a source of hope.  It assumes goodness in the world.  It communicates that they are not alone in caring, that other people in the world wish everyone was nicer to each other, too.  Other people hope in someone outside of themselves intervening supernaturally.  They believe that there are spiritual beings who care about us, supernaturally intervene for us, and make meaning out of suffering for us when we join into their greater story.

Brett came from a culture with a rich, historical background, and I wondered what impact it would have on him to join into its story.  Whether he took on the spirituality of his culture mattered less than if he could find hope in its story.  When we join into a greater story, it not only produces hope, but it also deepens connection.  Our loneliness ebbs away when we see ourselves connected to beings of the past and present.  We conclude that we are cared for and seen, as spiritual beings intervene and suffering is redeemed.

Brett and I had gone long past the hour, and he looked like he needed time to process, so I did not want to press the idea any further.  Besides, I knew that finding hope would take time.  The good thing about hope is that it can be held on another’s behalf.

I told Brett, “It’s okay that you feel like there is none.  I have hope for you, and I’ll hold hope for you here every week until you can hold it yourself.”