People like to put the word ‘hope’ into an imaginary place. A place of dreams and wishes. A place that isn’t ‘real.’
But nothing, and I mean nothing, could be further from the truth.
If hope is anything—it is the absolute inner truth of a human being’s capacity. It is the absolute inner truth of what is possible when we come back into contact with ourselves, with what is important to us. I’m not sure there is any greater truth in the world than when you see hope re-emerge on the face of someone who had lost hope.
Over the last two years I had the privilege of working with a group of Alaska Native leaders—elders and younger people who live and work in their villages in the interior of Alaska. For their entire lives they have struggled against personal trauma, historical trauma, scarce resources and a system that works against their cultural values. Each of them in their own way have worked so hard to bring healing to their people and their villages. But healing is tiring. The problems are huge.
Trauma makes you tired. Repeated trauma makes you exhausted. When you see people who have lost hope, they look on the outside the same way it can feel on the inside when you lose hope—it looks and feels blank. Like there is just nothing there. No one there. When hope is lost, you can’t make a connection to someone else, and you have lost the connection to yourself. I have seen this blank look many times in populations that have lived through war or historical trauma. They are polite as they listen, but they aren’t yet there. I have seen it on the faces of inner city school teachers and administrators on the front lines of helping for decades. They too look, as if, behind a wall.
This can look and feel like apathy. Where the inner voice is saying, “What’s the point?” “This is hopeless.” “Nothing matters.”
And I have felt that blank space in my own healing. A place that can make you feel lost, even from yourself. When you feel blank you are no longer in a fight or even a struggle—you don’t really know what you are thinking, your mind is, well, blank.
But blankness isn’t the opposite of hope. Blankness is the protection of it. It comes in like a thick fog and protects you from anyone seeing that something does matter to you. It protects you from them seeing it, and from you having to see it for yourself. If they can’t see it, they can’t take it away from you. If you can’t see it. You don’t have to feel the pain of disappointment.
It can be so hard to long for change, long for things to be different, to hope. It can hurt to stay with what is most important to you –and tolerate the disappointment of change happening so slowly, or not at all. Tolerate having to start over and over again.
So how does it change? How do people get hope back? How do you find it again?
By feeling and remembering that something does matter. That you matter. And this happens one small conversation at a time. It happens by being listened to and by listening. By hearing yourself talk about what matters to you. By connecting to your emotions again.
When we go blank we hide the ember of our hope. We protect it deep inside ourselves but it hasn’t completely gone out. And then with one small conversation at a time we fan the ember until it catches fire again.
It is that light that is unmistakable. It is the spring flowers after a long winter—bright and shining proof that life can be rekindled. Last week I saw that light shine from their eyes suddenly as they talked about what they want for their family, their village, their people. That light shined from their smiles as they laughed once again—and that light is contagious.
But I think that there is much we don’t yet understand about the blank places—the places we go to for protection and perhaps, respite. It may be that there are just some journeys of healing and change that need or require these blank places. These are such long journeys, back from healing from war, or apartheid, or historical trauma. These are long journeys healing from child abuse or gang violence or poverty. The blank places may be filled with resources we don’t understand or they may simply be a kind of anesthesia for the soul—when it’s too painful, this blankness kicks in and protects our deepest longing. Protects our light.
When I was in high school I taught horseback riding and when kids felt overwhelmed, out-of-control, or frightened, they would often drop the reins and grab on to the mane because that felt more solid—more safe than the tiny reins felt. But the problem, of course, was that then the horse did anything it wanted, which was, typically, to walk over to the gate and stand there. This is the blank space. You aren’t in control, you have let go and you are just going for a ride, or standing still, as the case may be. It took all their bravery and will-power to let go of the mane and pick of the reins again. To take control and risk feeling wobbly. This is exactly what hope looks like: it looks like someone picking up the reins of their heart again. This is what I mean about hope being true. Hope is really what allows for true action, it may be the truest truth we will ever know.
© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD