Hope is not what we say it is

Hope is

the thing with feathers

Hope is

a light at the end of the tunnel

Hope is

what you have when there is nothing else


The word is everywhere. Countless organizations feature the word hope as part of their mission or tagline. Entire political campaigns have been built around it and succeeded.

It can be a powerful word. In the right context, it ignites a certain feeling in us. It can make us believe in seemingly impossible things. It can keep us going when we are at the end of the road and have nowhere to turn.

But sometimes, it feels like a tired word. It’s overused, said sometimes with the intention of sparking a feeling but with no actual meaning behind it. It has become synonymous with toxic positivity- “good vibes only” or “just think positive and everything will be better.”

It’s used sometimes when we’re not willing to accept the problems and work toward real solutions. “We’ll never make things better, but at least there is hope.” The problem is hope without action is hopeless.

Accepting an ethereal concept of hope can keep us from pushing forward and making necessary but hard change. The word can be used as a crutch.

So what is hope and how do we keep it from being an empty word?

What is hope, really?

I believe hope is not what we traditionally think it is. It’s not the message we’re pushing, not what the mainstream would have you believe.

It’s a little word with a lot of complexity behind it. It’s a word that means different things to different people, and it is not always something helpful.

I have felt hope, that desperate kind. The kind your calloused fingers brush in the dark. It’s not always a pretty color or soft, but once you’ve felt it, just the start of it, you pull until you have it all.

When you have that piece of hope safe in your arms, no matter how fragile and ragged it is, you hold it tight. You don’t exactly care what it is or what it looks like, just that you have it. You don’t have to understand it to feel it.

Hope is the patterned gauze over our wounds. It is a delicately woven web. Hope is what binds us like the pages of a book when we are falling apart.

Hope is for all times, but especially the dark ones.

If we don’t have hope, do we have anything at all? I’m not sure the answer.

Accepting an ethereal definition of hope can keep us from pushing forward and making necessary but hard change.

I learned only recently there is research on hope. The most pervasive theory of hope, aptly called “Hope Theory” by CR Snyder, argues that hope is “the perceived ability to produce pathways to achieve desired goals and to motivate oneself to use those pathways.”

This theory posits “high hope” individuals view challenges as barriers to overcome whereas “low hope” individuals see these barriers as insurmountable and have more negative outcomes. Those with hope accomplish more and get through more of life’s shit.

In this way, we use the word “hope” as a motivator, as a way to try to pull people out of the darkness of their minds and get them moving toward a place where they can achieve things. This place can make them, and definitely others around them, more comfortable.

I haven’t done extensive research, but this “hope” feels more about our perception of what they’ve accomplished than something born within them.

The trouble is hope is not always obvious, thus why it can feel natural for some to tell a person what their hope should be. It can be difficult to find when you are battling your mind. Hope is sometimes the belief that you will again find that thing that keeps you going, because you remember how you found it before. It can be just holding on, even if only by your pinky finger.

And what about when hope goes away suddenly. What then? Sometimes the tiny piece of hope you’ve scrounged away no longer suffices. Hidden away like a tiny corner of your childhood blanket, it has become tattered, dirty, and no amount of washing or sewing will make it new again. So you go searching again.

We want so badly to know what hope is. It’s a concept we want to dissect, to carefully pull apart its components and declare we have the answer. But I’m not convinced it’s something we’ll ever accurately fit into words.

A better message of hope for those with mental illness

“Just have hope things will get better”

“There is always hope.”

These are things people may say to those who are struggling because the pain makes them uncomfortable or afraid. It is not an easy thing to sit with someone in their pain. We may say these things because we don’t know what else to say. We just want them to move on, to feel better.

But saying “there is hope” to someone going through a tough time doesn’t equate to a person feeling hopeful.

This overreliance on the word hope can be suffocating for those in pain. As David Kessler says in Finding Meaning:

“Hope can be like oxygen to people in grief. For others, however, especially in the early stages, it can feel invalidating. “In my sorrow, how dare you want me to feel hopeful…about what? Do you need me to hope to make you more comfortable?”

Sometimes you think there must be no hope and no amount of people telling you it will be okay or “just have hope” will make any difference. In fact, hearing this can be downright disheartening.

A person may wonder: What is wrong with me that I can’t see the positive? Am I broken beyond repair? Do they just want me to say I have hope so they can feel better? Is it really about how I feel?

Saying “there is hope” to someone going through a tough time does not equate to feeling hopeful.

Hope used in this way can be dangerous for those without hope. We need to stop using the word “hope” like it is an antidote for those struggling with their mental health. It is used in a way that renders it empty, meaningless. It can leave someone feeling the opposite of what we may be intending.

Instead of plastering the word “hope” on a billboard and calling it a day, let’s show hope. Let’s embody hope. Let’s help someone find that tattered piece of fabric to hold tight. Let’s be that for someone.

Let’s create more opportunities and offer more help. Instead of turning away, let’s challenge ourselves to sit in the middle of a raging storm with someone.

I think if we put more action behind the word hope instead of just saying it, we would create more hope for people struggling. We’d make more things worth hanging onto.

Let’s work toward a world of hope, a world worth living in.

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