Jane A. Simington, PHD., March, 2014
As we grow and develop, our life becomes structured around our ability to trust. We normally rely on trust during the course of any day. We trust that we are safe in our homes, that the health care system will meet our needs; that the person will stop at the red light; that our children will come home safely from school each day. But what happens to us and our sense of trust when our lived experience does not match what we have always taken for granted? No longer able to trust the universal order we feel a lack of control, continually threatened, anxious and fearful that other misfortunes might befall us. Our fears can impair our movement forward for we feel powerless to control our future. Feelings of powerlessness can lead to feelings of hopelessness, despair and even helplessness.
Since hope is a critical dimension of spirituality, eliminating feelings of hopelessness and despair, requires the reestablishment of trust and hope in a Divine Force, in one self and in others. And since hopefulness is associated with spiritual wellbeing, hope-fostering activities can include religious beliefs and activities but extend to broader conceptualizations of spirituality that encompass finding new meaning and purpose in life by redefining our self and our relationships. For me, and for many I have helped beyond their despair, redefining the self and relationships with others and with God required breaking the idols of youth.
While the challenge to break those idols forces many into a spiritual crisis, it can also be an opportunity for tremendous spiritual growth, for during those times we shut out the views of the world. This time of sorting though the beliefs and ideas given to us by others, allows for a discarding of what had been burned away by the fires of our own experiences. When we are finally able to view the sunrise on those first mornings after our souls’ dark nights, we know we are armed with a deeper truth, a deeper trust, and a sense of hope that despite all we have endured, life is good and filled with promise and opportunity.
Hope is also a mental state characterized by a desire to accomplish, but with some expectation that the desired goal is attainable. Hope is therefore a sense of the possible. Even though risking after a challenging life event can take great courage, a hopeful person wants a change and is willing to risk to make that happen. During a time when I felt powerless to control my future, I learned the value of risk- taking behaviors. I recognized that taking one risk each day, and moving from the goal that was easy to achieve and be successful at, to the more difficult yet rewarding when achieved goal, seemed to automatically help me reestablish trust in my own abilities, regain a sense of personal power and mastery over my reality, and began, even without my conscious awareness, to sprout feelings of a new found purpose in life. This in turn provided me with a sense that I could again contribute something of value to the world and thereby help others find hope after their tragic life events.
The relationships between risk-taking behaviors and hope were recognized by the ancient Greeks and described in the myth of Zeus and Prometheus. Prometheus angered Zeus who retaliated by offering her a box that contained evil in all its forms. Even though warned not to, Prometheus, risking more anger and disapproval, opened the box. Upon doing so, Pandora released all the evils. Only hope, lying on the bottom, remained. This myth is a great reminder that hope can reside at the base of all that we view as wrong in the world and in our lives.
Mythology and folklore for other cultures have also been used for centuries as models for life. As a therapeutic helper I often ask people what folklore or fairy tale hero is most like them. Together we explore the theme of that folk story. Then I ask the person to ponder, “How does that story end?” This question and their reflections on the parallel of the hero’s journey to their own life, can offer a glimpse of how they too can respond similarly.
While hope is an essential factor for well-being, many experience times when life seems to hold little promise. During such times, since hope is intangible, I often find it valuable to encourage strategies that make hope more tangible, even visible and touchable. One of my first opportunities to do so was when I worked with a community group, offering mental health services to depressed older persons. After assessing the relationship between their depression and feelings of hopeless, I handed each a disposable camera and asked them to go out into their homes and community and take a photo of anything that looked hopeful. Their developed pictures then became the focus of our group discussions and of my one-to-one sessions with each of them. The theme of those sessions was based on the notion that if they could see those hopeful things outside themselves, what did that reflect from within?
Therapeutic art activities also prove effective in helping both the old and young resonate with aspects of hope. In the very beginning when depression looms large, it can be hard to draw hope, so I invite the individual to pick a colored marker as a response to my question “If you could imagine hope what color would it be?” Then I encourage the person to draw hope, following my question “If you could imagine what hope looked like what shape would it be?” After any color or amount of color is placed on the paper, I encourage the expansion of the expression with the invitation “If hope were to grow, how big could it get, and what other colors would it need?”
A further therapeutic art activity I have found to help despairing persons recognize elements of hope in their lives, is the creation of a collage. For this activity I invite them to create a collage that would show all the things a hopeful person might want to have. This creation allows them to externalize in a depersonalized and therefore safe way, ideas and feelings they are not yet consciously aware of. The collage can then become a mirror reflecting a pathway to hope. As we process together their completed collage I often find symbols of hope. These include the anchor; the dove, the swallow. In Aesop fables, the swallow symbolizes hope, because it is among the first birds to appear at the end of winter. Other symbols of hope include a rainbow, a sunrise and other images of morning. There are often moments of awe and increased feelings of empowerment when people recognize that these symbols have appeared on their work. This gives me a great opportunity to remind them, that creativity is the voice of the soul.
Since trust and hope are hand-holding sisters, when there is a sense of despair, hopelessness and powerlessness, there is also a need to heal the circumstances that fractured trust. After years of searching for ways to reestablish trust and to help another reestablish trust, I have discovered that it can be valuable to work somewhat backwards. I have recognized that when we take calculated risks and have successes, we begin to trust that things can get better and we begin to lay hopeful plans for the future. I have seen this backward approach work so effectively and so often that I now place efforts to reestablish hope at the base of my pyramid of healing and work upward from there. I find great value in helping people rekindle hope for hope helps dreams take flight.