We have a propensity, perhaps even a love affair, with giving the negative a bullhorn. Every frustration, doubt, grief, and despair is given voice through social media, news, texts, e-mails, and even the narrative in our minds. In fact, I would submit that this is such a common occurrence, a widely accepted approach, we rarely question its existence or efficacy.
About a week ago I had a brief conversation with a friend. She asked how things were, and I went into the quickest, dirtiest run-down I could give. I focused on the most tangible struggles and she listened compassionately. But, the more I spoke, the worse I felt. We parted ways and I couldn’t shake a feeling of discomfort and heaviness.
I realized later that there wasn’t an ounce of hope in that conversation. I simply listed all the current difficulties in my life. There was no upside, nothing to temper the stark “facts”. To be fair, there are many present difficulties and they are substantial: I have two daughters with rare health conditions, both of which can spontaneously result in serious injury or hospitalization. I am a single mom, borne out of what author Gretchen Baskerville calls, “A Life-Saving Divorce”. After being out of the work force for nearly a decade, I am trying to reassert my value and voice into a field that is moving at the speed of light. My income is laughable. My former spouse has made many, many things difficult or painful for my children and I over the last two and a half years. Every time I “get my feet under” myself, a considerable aspect of our lives changes. I am recovering from the effects of overwhelming stress and trauma. I could go on, but I run the risk of repeating the same conversation I regretted leaving unqualified with the positive.
I am never in favor of lying, faking it, or refusing to grieve and acknowledge struggle. I’ve done the heavy lifting in that area and it was necessary and worth every tear and cry in the dark. I know the need of “ranting”, in that we all need flesh and blood at some point, in some way, to hear our story and inhabit our pain with us. We all need expression of our inner life, to stare it down and call even the most agonizing things what they are. Still, on the worst days, gratefulness has carried me through. Not honesty, not introspection, not rage, or even white-knuckled effort. Gratefulness is the basis of hope.
For all that I’ve seen gratefulness do in changing my perspective, giving life to my body, and hope to my step, I have to champion its goodness.
Hope isn’t a denial of reality or a false promotion. It’s a call to maturity, to perspective, and being our own agents of deliverance. It’s the remembrance that we have survived every day up until now, that life is ebb and flow, that emotions are indicators but not dictators.
Not long after I fled my home, my daughters and I created a game. It is called the “Let’s Pretend We Don’t Have a Home” Game. We were not homeless, but it came very near to that after the money from our joint bank account mysteriously disappeared when I conveyed my intent to separate. Some kind people prevented this from leaving us on the street while I sought legal redress. I plucked up my courage to ask a realtor about a discount on a rental home that seemed like a palace for us.
Let me paint you a picture: It was an older home, the kitchen floor warped and buckled, there was no dishwasher, it stunk of closed-up spaces though there were drafts in every room, several broken windows, bedroom doors with stickers and graffiti on them, and later, mice in the garage. The yard was huge and a monumental task to keep mown, edged, and pruned. The appliances were ancient, the wood floors scratched and damaged, and there was no insulation under the subfloor. I could go on.
Let me paint you another picture: It had never been rented out and had a single owner, so it lacked the sour and greasy feel of all the other rentals I’d perused. The small bit of carpet in a room and hallway was new and wouldn’t exacerbate my environmental allergies. It was the perfect size for me to be removed from the girls when I worked early mornings. There were three bedrooms, so my younger daughter wouldn’t wake her older sister with her oft-disturbed sleep. There was a large RV hangar I could park under, thereby protecting my truck from the beating sun or morning frost. It had a well and septic system, eliminating a water or sewage bill. The yard was huge, giving me a free way to exercise and enjoy the outdoors. The house stayed cooler in the summer because of the crawlspace’s proximity to the subfloor. Doing dishes slowed down my mind and usually resulted in a dance party. I could go on and on and on.
In our game, which we always played while driving, the girls would start by saying,
“We need a home. Where are we going to get a home? Oh no!”
“What do you want in a home?” I would ask.
“Oh, it will have to be awesome!” they replied.
“I want my own bedroom!” one chirped.
“A big yard, a place to play, room for our toys, and a place for you to park. You were never allowed to park in the garage, even when it rained!” the other exclaimed.
I would laugh and add my own wishes, all the while describing our new home.
“This sounds too good to be true,” I moaned. “Where will we find such a wonderful place that meets all our needs and wants?”
“Wahhh,” they pretend-cried.
“Wait!” I said, as I turned off the highway near our street. “Let’s turn down here and just look.”
“Okay!” they said.
“What’s this place?” I asked as we turned once more, and the home came into view.
“It’s great!” they said. “Let’s see if we can live there.”
“Okay, but I think it’s way too wonderful! Look at how nice it is. The yard is incredible! You guys would have so much room to play. I bet it has three bedrooms!” I pulled into the driveway and parked.
“Let’s go inside, mama!” they pleaded. “Let’s see if it’s as great inside as it is outside.”
“I don’t know if we’re allowed!” I countered. “Maybe it’s unlocked.”
“Maybe it has all our stuff already inside!” they laughed.
Hint: It did.
We constantly talked about how grateful we were for that home.
Nothing was going well during that time. I was exhausted and heartbroken and wondered if my body and mind would give out. I was constantly looking over my shoulder in fear. Working from home meant the interference of my children, which sorely tried my patience and risked my being fired countless times. People who didn’t understand my situation, or didn’t want to, betrayed me, ignored me, and hurt me in excruciating ways. But my heart was still filled with hope and (because) I spoke it out, loudly and constantly.
Since commiseration seems to be the glue and fabric of our society, we generally conflate it with real community. But good relationships don’t center around shared misery. There’s nothing wrong with connections based on relatable pain and frustration, but if that’s all they consist of, you’re doomed to tear one another down or simply keep each other down. You’re not looking forward; you’re looking behind or around. There is no virtue in the future and no good to be gleaned from the past while you’re complaining, doubting, or focused on all you lack. You’re undermining any benefit your history or your pain can have by refusing to assume a perspective of “good”. The relationships that serve you well, including the one with yourself, are the ones that center around true connection: what’s growing inside you, what’s changing, your dreams, and your HOPE.
After practicing hope for over two years, it has become almost as second nature as doubt and defeatism once were. “Learned helpFULness”, it could be called. When something goes wrong, I often think, automatically, “This is great because…” I no longer spiral into despair, crushed by things I cannot control or operate under the assumption everything that could go bad, will. I mentioned the interaction above to own that this is an imperfect habit and one that takes consistent, intentional application. Some days all I can do is yell, “You’re gonna get through this. You’re awesome. Tell yourself 10 reasons why you are grateful, right now!” I may feel like a fraud as my emotions scream the opposite, but yell I do, until, eventually, I make it out into the light again.
Be honest, grieve, ask for help, tell your story, but give hope the loudest voice.