Considerably taller than me, grey on top, with one of those polished British accents that make you feel inferior for simply existing, he asked me for directions.
This was a ploy.
He told me it was his birthday, fifty-something, and how this one is particularly brutal because he can’t help but feel like everything is getting worse. It’s not just COVID, he said, it’s everything.
“We’ll be gone in a couple of generations,” he said, “Maybe less.”
In other words, we’re doomed.
I’m no stranger to negative thinking. About a year ago, I concluded a fifteen-week group cognitive behavioural therapy program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada. The desperate part of me learned some nifty exercises and the skeptic found things to pick at. Therapy isn’t always therapeutic.
While there is something special about quantifying a percentage — week after week after week — with respect to the following statement: “I feel hopeful about the future”, it’s impossible to understate the importance of hope in recovery from mental illness.
We need hope. Without it, we’re sick.
But how much hope is healthy to have? Do we need to really Believe things will get better?
Optimists and bible-thumpers alike seem to think so. Eloquent orators reference the moral arc of history and encourage us to consider we’re on our merry way in the pursuit of justice. We have long been trending towards better days, they say, keep going. Hope.
The problem, as author David A. Graham describes in his 2015 essay in The Atlantic, is that this perspective,
“imputes an agency to history that doesn’t exist. Worse, it assumes that progress is unidirectional. But history is not a moral force in and of itself, and it has no set course.”
If an optimistically-minded progression of human history is suspicious, if not delusional — imputing “an agency to history that doesn’t exist” — a neutral, inconsequential perspective is reassuring in all the wrong ways.
But hope doesn’t have to be about believing things will (continue?) to get better. Hope is about not succumbing to life’s inevitable hardships.
To me, hope is about believing no matter how painful things may be right now, they won’t always get worse.
I think back to that unsolicited conversation I found myself in. I fed him something or other about control, told him it sounds like he’s spending too much time worrying about things so beyond his.
He shrugged his shoulders.
I told him when I feel overwhelmed, dejected, unbothered — when I feel hopeless — I go for walks. I like listening to the waves crash over and over again. I like watching daylight disintegrate until nothing but tiny, little sparkles poke through a midnight velvet sky.
Maybe he’s right, I told him. Things are terrible, and sometimes it feels like they’re only getting worse and worse and worse. But right now, in this very instant, they aren’t too bad. It’s his birthday, after all.
Hope is not about believing things will get better. It’s about not succumbing to life’s inevitable hardships.
Hope is about believing things won’t always get worse.
This article was originally published on PS I Love You. Relationships Now.