The Importance of Hope In Seemingly Hopeless Times
By Rev. Bede Healey, OSB Cam, Ph.D.
As I sit here and write this, we have just passed the one-year anniversary of the lockdown related to COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic. We have experienced an entire liturgical year under restrictions and limitations, and will experience the Easter Season, again, in restricted ways, but with the added experience of having endured an entire year of the pandemic and all the issues associated with it.
What has this year been like? What issues have arisen—in ourselves, our families, our communities, our parishes—and in a larger perspective, our Church and the world?
Many have commented that the inability to gather, in person, to celebrate the sacraments, the Eucharist, to participate in prayer groups, and partake of all the other gatherings of their church faith community. There is often a dislocation in their experience of life in the pandemic. Further negative experiences include the disruption in the grieving process related to the lack of opportunity to attend funerals, the inability to celebrate with family and friends at weddings and commencements, and the many other events we gather for, to celebrate and honour people important to us.
There is a great resilience in us, and there are many adaptations people have made to make life in the midst of the pandemic less distressing. For the insights, experiences, and relationships that sustained us, we certainly express our gratitude and thanks. But what about the other experiences—loneliness, anxious moments, sadness and depression, interpersonal conflict, futility, hopelessness—we all have also endured, to a greater or lesser degree? Cumulatively, these experiences are assaults against hope, and threats to our capacity to believe. So, going forward, emerging from these assaults and threats, how do we address hopelessness? How do we face the reality with which many of us struggle; that is, as one writer puts it, not believing in anyone or anything for any length of time?
This has been a traumatic year, in the sense of trauma, leading to a sense of fragmentation, the loss of meaning, the disruption of our most important relationships. As one writer puts it, we cannot escape trauma. We are mortal beings—injury, sickness, and death will mark our lives, and the lives of everyone we know. No one is spared from traumatic experiences.
When hope goes astray.
We are all familiar with the sense of hopelessness, the sense of impossibilities. We have all experienced, to some degree, the distortion of our capacity to imagine, the loss of purposeful action and an overwhelming sense of futility. We come to believe we lack any inner resources, are unworthy, inadequate, unacceptable, and valueless, that life is frustrating and inadequate, and we find ourselves full of anger and resentment. Hopelessness leads to despair, anguish, and remorse. Despair is a dark defeatism, resulting from the loss of, or failure to, hope. Hopelessness is essentially a failure to wish, to desire, to have ambition, to plan. This is not the life we are called to live by God.
How can we understand hope and believing?
We know faith and hope, along with love, are theological virtues. They are also dynamic processes essential to our functioning in the human as well as spiritual realm. The Jesuit psychoanalyst William Meissner* has thoughtfully considered these processes, and it is from his ideas we will begin our exploration of the contours of psyche and spirit.
Faith and hope are intimately connected. Faith, especially understood as our capacity to “believe in” many things, is sustained and given purpose by hope, allowing us to live and cope effectively in this world. Together, they are an adaptive resource and an elemental strength of ours for efficacious and realistic coping. Certainly, our capacity to hope and to believe is based on God’s gift of grace, working in our human condition. We live in the nitty-gritty of the intersection of the reality that is now, and the reality that is not yet. Hope is not wishing or wishful thinking, wishing our problems would go away, or wishing we would win the lottery. Rather, hope, is above all else realistic, based in our real, concrete everyday lives. It is from the perspective of our current reality that hope seeks, imagines and shapes the reality of our future. Hope is essentially an active, continuing process and does not give up imagining, the imagining of what is not yet, but possible and attainable. Our hope-filled imagination needs to be oriented to real situations and real persons.
Hope is an act of mutuality, of shared imagination. It is built by, sustains, and is sustained by a community. When hope is lost, so also is the capacity for shared imagination. This mutuality is crucial, because separation and alienation lead to hopelessness, while connection and community sustain hope. That is, hope supports the possibility and availability of meaningful change as well as the radical human freedom to bring it about.
So, hope sustains and supports our faith, our capacity to believe in a future and work to bring it about. This desire fuels our purposeful actions and intentions. Indeed, some say that this fact is the prophetic function of hope—prophetic in that it proclaims a reality that is not yet achieved. Hope enables the sense of the possible, encourages creative living, while at the same time not denying life’s pains, losses and very real disappointments.
In our day-to-day lives, we have many hopes, and we find that any number of them are riddled with ambivalence and conflict. As adults, we have come to accept reality and have come to terms with the fact that many of our private hopes are irreconcilable with our life in this world. However, these varied and conflicted hopes can be woven together. This requires recognizing the limitations and imperfections of people in general and ourselves personally, acknowledging the unavoidable ambivalence we have of relating to others. As adults, we need to grow in the freedom to hold gently our current situation, to let some or all of it fall away, so as to be able to see and grow in the possibility of what the future can bring for ourselves and others.
Hope and faith support our imagining and allow a sense of future possibilities, even in the face of long-standing fears, disappointments, loss, and failures. Our experiences of faith and hope remind us that we have the capacity to envision a realistic and realizable future.
How do we recover our ability to hope and believe?
We need to find hope in the realities of our current situation. We need a re-balancing, and especially a re-engagement with others. We need to re-discover what is positive in ourselves and others and remember that we have trusted others in the past and can do so again. Indeed, it is through our re-engagement with others, supportive and caring others, that we find a basis for hope that is rooted in truth. In a way, it is all a matter of encouraging each other to our fullest growth, remembering that we have at least the rudiments of hope in the sense of a real human possibility. This instillation of faith and hope is, in essence, a profound expression of real care, a cure, if you will, of the diminishment of life, and the disruption of meaning experienced in the pandemic.
The experiences of disconnection with our faith communities and the difficulty or impossibility of gathering together point to the sustaining roles of religious and spiritual rituals, as well as the sense of diminishment when they are no longer available to us. As the restrictions imposed on us begin to lift, what will it mean to be able to return to our faith community gatherings?
Whether we realized it before, we certainly understand now the power of ritual in our lives, and the way that engagement in group rituals strengthens us, both individually and as a group. When we repeatedly enact these rituals, we find that we experience higher levels of emotional strength, resilience, the capacity to recover from loss and, above all, hope.
So, as we begin to be able to gather as women and men of faith, let us not take this for granted! Let us take the time to recollect the losses, dislocation, and diminishment that we experienced in our separation from our faith community. As we re-engage, let us understand the deep power of believing and hoping, what power does for ourselves, our communities, and the world. Let us help each other recover our hope, strengthen our capacity to believe. Perhaps this Easter Season can have added meaning—new life, an increased capacity to hope and an ever more lively faith. And may the re-enkindling of hope– and–belief–based care be the cure, the source of healing we all need. ■
- Meissner, W. W., SJ MD (1987). Life and faith. Washington, DC: Georgetown Un. Press.