On Hope


In my psychotherapy practice people regularly recount disillusioning experiences to me: aborted romances, botched careers, and other dashed hopes and dreams, usually shared in excruciating detail. As I think about it, probably half of my work life involves listening to these poignant tales. Out of curiosity, I’ve done some calculating: that’s a rough –very rough –average of eighteen hours per week spent listening to narratives which, while unique in terms of content, are fundamentally variations on the single theme of “failure”. (I doubt that few priests spend anything close to this amount of time hearing confessions.) A tale’s end is usually some expression of despair, humiliation, anger, and/or regret over the experience, emotions that are made even more intense if the teller of the tale is aware of their having had a role in engineering an unhappy outcome in some critically important area(s) of their life.

I have responded to these diverse tales in various ways, depending on the flow of the dialogue between myself and the patient, my intuition as to the patient’s psychological-mindedness and sensitivities, and, yes, my own mood on a given day. I commonly begin by trying to understand what the patient makes of the experience. Among other things, I inquire into the patient’s emotional response to the experience of failure. That is, as they look back on the misadventure, do they feel resentful, ashamed, vengeful, accepting, and/or some other emotion? I have come to believe that the answer to this question is of critical importance, inasmuch as it offers a window into the patient’s capacity to negotiate the concrete details of their daily lives in the face of adversity. This is commonly referred to as “coping”. (Less commonly it is called “enduring”, “tolerating”, or “managing”.) Coping is absolutely necessary for successfully navigating life’s dark passages. However, beyond coping is another factor of greater interest to me, and of far greater psychological importance for the patient’s well-being. This is a psychological capacity called “hope”, a human attribute that include sand then transcends merely keeping one’s head above water.

Now, people regularly use the word “hope” in conversation, though usually without knowing what they actually mean by it. In this essay I wish to consider and shed some light on the nature of this phenomenon. It may be helpful to first describe a few things that hope is not.In what follows I will argue that it is not something that is attainable except when one is first able to directly face states of anguish. That is, the movement toward hope always begins in an inner confrontation with some rather grim emotions and memories that we would just as soon forget. So hope cannot evolve from anything that alienates us from some portion of our genuine feelings and wishes. It grows from the totality of our being, or not at all.

Implied here is the idea that hope is different from what we call the ability to cope. We might say that coping is a necessary though insufficient condition for hope. Those who cope well are often skilled at denying or rationalizing away the actual significance of a painful event, particularly their emotional reactions to it. When faced with a disillusionment they simply put it out of their minds and focus with renewed energy on unrelated life tasks, like the man who spends additional hours at the office so as to avoid thinking about the recent death of a parent, or the adolescent who plays video games for hours on end after a romantic break-up.

Hope is different: it has emotional and cognitive markers lacking in the survival-ethos of simple resilience. A major difference between endurance and hope is that the former is an expression of resistance to reality, while the latter expresses an intention to accept reality and make it a part of consciousness, to some significant degree at least. Coping begins in the act of seeking to blot out or dissociate oneself from awareness of agrimevent and the unpleasant feelings accompanying it. In contrast, hope begins in the act of allowing the gravity of a disenchanting circumstance to seep into awareness and become an object of contemplation. That is, repugnant emotional states and memories are allowed entrance into consciousness and made objects of thought, there to be “worked through”.

“Working through” is Sigmund Freud’s term for the process of lifting an inner conflict to the level of awareness, where it may be creatively engaged and, hopefully, resolved. It consists of an internal process of continually recalling a painful set of memories to awareness. Here they are repeatedly revisited or “replayed” in the theatre of the mind, examined and reinterpreted from different vantage points, and/or subject to multiple imagined revisions meant to repair the sense of failure surrounding the event (as, for example, when we bring to mind a humiliating episode and imagine ourselves as responding in a different, better way, such that it ends positively). Working through can be a laborious process, yet one that the mind instinctively initiates in response to an insult or injury. We probably all recall the obsessive ruminations in which we have found ourselves embroiled after, say, being raked over the coals by a boss or unexpectedly dumped by a lover. After a period of mentally replaying the hurtful incident we found that the pain began to lessen in intensity, and that we slowly became more able to recall and discuss what had happened without being overwhelmed with affect.

In psychotherapy it is commonly observed that patients tend to repeat the same tales and complaints over and over, sometimes for years. Interestingly, I find that patients often experience each new telling as if they were airing this trouble for the first time. An emotional blow of one, five, or ten years ago may be told with the affect more appropriate to something that happened earlier that day. Now,this phenomenon is not working through. Rather, we could say that it is an aborted working through process, one that bears no fruit but is rather a tool of depressive self-torment. Part of the psychotherapist’s task is to help to turn self-flagellating, unfruitful rumination into self-understanding. If successful, the patient’s subjective sensation of the unpleasant experience as a fresh event may start to wane, until the troubling feelings that are carried in its wake become more fully integrated with consciousness, where they may become a part of one’s conscious self-image or “identity”,and so are put to rest. In addition, the patient may also come away with some new intellectual understanding of him or herself that is an added antidote against thoughtlessly repeating the choices that fueled the problem in the first place.

The persistent working through of one’s difficult feelings may induce these to transform into life-enhancing forms. A large part of working though means consciously engaging bitter emotions in a kind of inner dialogue, typically in the form of questions posed to oneself: “what does it mean that the same type of personal crisis happens to me repeatedly?”; “why do I persist in a behavior that I suspect from the start will leave me unhappy?”; “why do I find myself doing the very things that I loathed in my parents?”, and so forth. Hence, hope arises when one goes beyond merely tolerating the anguish caused by a disillusionment, to actively embracing the reality of one’s situation and the resulting psychic pain.

Implied in the above is the idea that unhappy experiences contain within them the seeds of wisdom, and that we may extract something positive from them by turning them over in our minds. This is a very common idea: “experience is the best teacher” and “I learned a hard lesson”, are popular expressions of this belief. I think these are perfectly fine understandings of the potential benefit of a disappointing experience, as far as they go. However, they don’t explain the exact nature of the mental process in which we engage when we consciously consider an episode of failed expectations. Among the multitude of possible answers to this question, I prefer that of C.G. Jung, one of Freud’s followers and collaborators, who saw the experience of disillusionment in a metaphysical light.

Specifically, Jung asserted that the suffering we endure following an emotional shock is Nature’s way of directing our attention to dimensions of the psyche that are unknown to us, that is, unconscious. Suffering is a “messenger” of the unconscious, addressing consciousness in a purposeful way through perplexing quandaries that compel us to look more deeply within ourselves. While Freud saw the mind as inherently oriented toward defensive self-division, Jung came to an opposite conclusion: the psyche is inherently directed to achieve the complete unfolding of all its qualities, he proposed. While consciousness may resist this process, this is more an expression of our dread of the raw power contained in the unconscious than anything else, he thought. We are likely to tremble in fear when we encounter what Jung called the numino sum of the unconscious, a term referring to the aura of uncanniness, eeriness,and mystery that surrounds it. We can all relate to this feeling after we awake from a vivid and surreal dream; though we cannot experience the unconscious directly, in sleep we come as near to it as is possible.

Hence, for Jung, humans are fundamentally oriented toward achieving a conscious relation to life that is organized around specific, unique themes and strivings. The sum total of these endeavors constitute an individual’s singular destiny. Jung saw this as an aspect of a process he called “individuation”, which he described as the natural impulse within each of us to “become ourselves”, so to speak. Becoming oneself means attending to the split-off, disavowed, or as-yet-unborn aspects of the mind as these emerge from the unconscious, so as to more completely define one’s unique personal identity and place in the world. This most often occurs in times of emotional crisis, when we are most uncertain that we truly “know ourselves”. The failure of a pet plan, severe physical illness, or the outbreak of an addiction are prime examples of the many ways that Nature interrupts our self-assurance that we truly understand ourselves and our motives.

Personal crises bring us to our knees, as it were, and into a position of humility in the face of the numen of the unconscious and, indeed, of Being itself. At these times we are most receptive to the unfolding of unrealized intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capacities and outlooks in consciousness. This is why Jung once wrote that “in our symptoms are contained our souls”. That is to say, moments in which we are confronted with bitter disenchantment, our failings, and/or flaws are also doorways into the enigmatic, as-yet-unrealized reaches of our psyches. We must become better acquainted with these hidden aspects of the mind so as to understand ourselves more fully and, therefore, live a life that is more whole, thought Jung.

“Wholeness” is not the same as “perfection”. Someone is on the road to wholeness when they can receive and be reconciled to the paradoxes that make up life in this world, including the profound contradictions coexisting within themselves. Wholeness includes the experience of an ever-deeper, more differentiated and nuanced sense of connection to ourselves, significant others, and humanity in toto. It yields a more substantial and felt awareness of our secret identity with all expressions of the human condition, among which are those that are most alien – and perhaps most consciously offensive or hateful – to us.

Consciousness is inherently incomplete, the most miniscule fragment of the totality of the psyche, said Jung. He insisted that it is the work of a lifetime to encounter and try to integrate some microscopic part of the unconscious into one’s conscious identity; it is most often life’s bitter experiences that propel this process. The intense emotions associated with periods of suffering over some personal tragedy or failure will not leave us alone, and practically force us to engage the unconscious forthrightly. This emotional dimension to experience is essential to the individuating process: almost no one undertakes such a trek inward simply because it is a “good idea”, “mentally healthy”, and so on. This is a reason why self-help books rarely help anyone, at least in my experience. These address the intellect only, when what is most needed is an initial, perhaps gut-wrenching experience of loss to make the journey toward self-understanding something that seems compelling and real…that is, something that reverberates through the totality of one’s being as an irresistible necessity.

Hope is a rather pure example of the irrepressible instinct to engage life that is a salient feature of the individuating personality.The hopeful person wants to gorge on life’s bounty, as it were,to take in all of life in an ecstatic union, and so cannot be satisfied with merely coping. Although the human desire for such a completeness of experience is ultimately unattainable, this has never stopped any of us from trying. Hence, in its purest form, hope is propelled by the illusion of realizing an impossible goal: it is audacious. Of course, if it is to be effective in the real world hope cannot be maintained in this “pure” form. The original grand scope of the heart’s desire must undergo significant modification in the course of its trek from the depths of the soul to its final destination in consciousness. Our hopes are only partly attainable in the actual world in which we live, and so we cannot realize these in their pure forms. Here the ability to compromise is essential. However, the memory of the hopeful desire in its pure, uncompromised form still dwells in the back of the mind, where it continually enlivens our willingness to courageously embrace life.

This striving toward the expansion of the self has been touched upon by many important cultural figures throughout the years: for example, Jung’s thinking on this topic was heavily influenced by the nineteenth-century German Romantic philosophers, such as Fichte, Schelling, and Schopenhauer, who posited an innate desire for self-realization within human nature, the reflection of an impersonal “life force” or transpersonal “Will” that relentlessly pursues the full realization of its potentialities. This is a characteristic of the mind that may potentially put all experiences, good and bad, to use in pursuit of this goal. Therefore, while experiences of adversity are difficult to contemplate consciously, we may nonetheless absorb these into subjectivity, where they eventually give up their secrets in the form of new and, in certain gifted individuals, highly original perspectives on existence.

So, in summation, assimilating painful events into the psyche leads to a new and creative engagement with life, one that points the way toward the future. The prototype for this process is found in the creation of art, much of which seems to emerge directly from some profound experience of suffering.The work of art is often a result of an individual having encountered and embraced one or more experiences of devastation, and having worked these over until they were transformed into a symbol of the artist’s connection to, and striving for enhanced, richer experiences of being. In this regard, one thinks of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and the creation of Blues music, both of which are transformations of the deepest states of misery into transcendent expressions of hope. While precious few of us are artistic geniuses, it is nonetheless true that we all practice small acts of artistry in our daily lives whenever we consciously wrestle with an experience of loss and turn it into some creative, forward-looking affirmation of life’s goodness. So, it seems fair to say that hope is an artistic response to life.

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