All of our virtues, all of the things that keep us afloat, ebb and flow in this life. The tides move in and out, the seasons circle around, night looms, morning follows. Hope comes and goes as do the things that nourish it. The Buddhist teachings remind us that the shadow side of Hope, or shall we say the more misguided version of it, is intimately paired with despair. If we attach our hope to things which are transient then despair will inevitably follow. If we attach our hope to the highest version of ourselves, then despair soon comes crashing down upon us every time we slip up. Pema Chodron titles one of her fabulous chapters on this topic “Abandon all hope of fruition” – a title seemingly hopeless in itself, and yet one which always brings rueful laughter and relief. So if we are to abandon that kind of ‘hope’ – the hope that we will ultimately succeed in some way or another, or the hope that the world will someday be ‘better’ – then what kind of Hope can actually sustain our souls?
When I ask people what kind of things bring them hope in dark times, they invariably refer to the smallest acts of kindness or agency. They refer to the simplest and humblest parts of their lives or their own selves. That they have a friend who they know loves them ‘regardless’; that when they pat their cat she purrs and seems happy and grateful; that they just heard a Kookaburra laugh and that always makes them feel better; that they have made a little space they call ‘home’ (even if temporary) that they can come back to. When we’re experiencing easier times, that list might enlarge and give us experiences of really feeling like there’s a group, or a person, or a higher power that we belong to and are held by. Or that we know and trust that we have a role and a purpose in life that matters.
There are times however, when we look within, or when we look at our world, and we find it hard to see past our own disappointment and despair about ourselves or others. Believe it or not, these can be the richest times for discovering what Hope truly is – because true Hope is the result of discovering what’s really alive inside of us – and discovering that we never lose the power to bring it to life. True hope is the discovery that despite all of the hurdles, whether inner or outer, there is something I can do that can still lift me up and pull me towards more Love. As Emily Dickinson says, “Hope is the thing with feathers that nestles in the Soul” – and is something inside of us.
Real Hope is about discovering our own power to affect how we see things and what we choose to do. We also have far more power to affect others, for the good, than we often realise.
First and foremost, that means choosing to feed that fledgling little bird inside of ourselves until it is strong enough to take flight. And what that creature of Hope thrives on is connection, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. So how can we nurture this? Here are a few ideas, offered gently: if you are feeling alone and without purpose or connection – grab a bag of hot chips and go visit some seagulls – and find out very quickly how much power you do have to make someone’s day. Take some seed and scatter it to the birds and allow yourself to become caught up in the play of life – watch how ridiculous pidgeons are and let it make you laugh. Run yourself a bath or rub your feet when you’re feeling at your most self-critical. Take some coloured pens and let yourself start doodling the blackness until your feelings start shifting. Bake yourself some cookies, even if they are a flop or you ‘shouldn’t’ eat them all and throw them to the birds or the ants instead – and don’t see that as a waste, but rather as a lotto win for whoever’s on the receiving end. Buy your imperfect spouse some flowers for the fact that they are steadfastly by your side; pay someone a sincere complement and see how much it touches them; venture outside and water a thirsty plant and tune into the gratitude it transmits as its leaves plump up. Or as Caroline Myss says – just stop telling yourself that you can’t ‘bear’ this – and see how often you can – and see how that very realisation brings strength.
Track what happens inside (don’t just settle for imagining the idea of it). Ideally, it’s all about discovering what you have the power to create – be it a change of mind or mood, or a gift of kindness to another. It’s always something small, and sometimes secret, that brings us back home to Hope. And while sometimes it really comes from the grace of kindess from another, it’s good to learn how to re-find it inside of ourselves. Because what a blessing it would be if even in our darkest hour, we could be a source of Hope for ourselves in the world.
And when even those things cannot be mustered, speak to that little bird inside of you kindly and say ‘forgive me dear one, I can’t offer you any seed today but please hold on’. For that is already an act of kindness and great agency. Make a little prayer of trust that the tide will come back in. And remember, we are all very imperfectly at sea in this same boat together.