Hopeful Musings

Recently, my older son wrote a story that he has entered in a contest. He is a good writer and the story has a strong voice. Like most of what he reads, it is a dystopian, sci-fi tale with a teenage protagonist. When he gave it to me to read, he warned me that it was dreadfully sad. It has a grim ending and I found myself suggesting ways in which he could change it to make it happier. And, of course I probed to learn if the ending was a reflection of his personal state of mind. (No – thankfully!) He said the ending was an experiment with writing a counter-narrative to typical endings in which the hero or heroine somehow figures out how to save themselves and humanity from almost certain destruction. As a writing experiment, I understoond his choice. But our conversation triggered several memories and got me thinking about why we look for hope in stories, how hope and happy endings are different, and what the ingredients of hope might be.

In a conversation with my own mother when I was very young after seeing the 1971 movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” I questioned her as to how there could be a story without a happy ending. As a seven year old, I was confused when the villagers began to leave their town and the fiddler followed behind leaving the audience somber and melancholy. Her simple reply: “Not every story has a happy ending.” A mysterious answer for my childish mind but I remembered it.

The second memory was from college in a women’s fiction class my senior year. We’d read the Pulitzer winning play, “ ‘Night, Mother” and had been asked to reflect on the protagonist’s choice of suicide. I railed against it, not believing that her life was so hopeless to merit such a choice. During class discussion, others defended the play’s ending and I was left feeling a bit unsophisticated for not agreeing. Of course as Frank Rich lays out in this review, http://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/01/theater/theater-suicide-talk-in-night-mother.html , the point of the play is more about the desperation all around us that our culture fosters than the central character’s choice. Yet our class discussion has stayed with me all these years as I’ve moved from being student to teacher and into roles in which perhaps my most important function is to provide hope.

Of the many rewarding parts of my job, one of my favorites is supervising students in a community clinic that is run by UNC’s Department of Clinical Psychology. Two of our second year MSW students are placed there and do therapy with a wide range of clients from the campus and surrounding community. Supervising these students means co-facilitating a seminar with colleagues in psychology, meeting with the two students weekly to discuss their client interactions, watching tapes of their therapy sessions, and reading notes. It’s work that keeps me close to practice and gives me a rare window into the everyday stories of people in my community. It is joyful work because every year I get to witness such growth, in the students I supervise and also in their clients. Through their stories, choices, and changes I re-learn the meaning of hope and get to think far and wide about the particulars of how it is kindled.

We all find ourselves with friends and loved ones in difficult situations and states of mind. Some have little hope that their circumstances, relationships, health, or well-being will improve. They wish for the past and fear the future. Others appear intent on destroying themselves to avoid pain they believe they cannot survive. If you’re like me, our first response is to try to fix it, which often means we flee into platitudes: “Just do something to distract yourself.” “Stop worrying. It’s going to get better.” “You’d feel better if you a. go to the gym every day b. get a manicure c. go back to work d. quit working so much e. volunteer, and on and on. But to the person who is supremely discouraged, who has lost heart, these platitudes sound like an unknown dialect. Suggestions and solutions do not constitute a language that can be understood by the discouraged.

What is the right language to speak to those who are suffering often in circumstances that have no easy, quick, or certain solution? In recent years, I’ve become interested in an approach called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.”[Look here if you want more information. https://contextualscience.org/act ] Here’s the premise. We will not free ourselves from suffering as long as we are a part of the human condition. We may suffer more or less at particular times but suffering is ubiquitous. The only question we can answer is what is it we value and then commit to live in accordance with those values. Concepts like independence, safety, serving others, having strong relationships, working for justice, revenge, achievement, learning, living our faith, all of these constitute values – some positive and some negative. When pressed, most of us will choose a positive value or two which can become a North Star to someone unmoored, adrift, and in pain. The therapist’s role is to help uncover those values and help figure out ways that individuals can live in accordance with them despite suffering and circumstance.

What does this look like? Suppose I live with chronic pain but value social connection and giving back to my community. Instead of not getting up and participating in a volunteer opportunity because I am afraid of the pain, I would get up, do what is possible to deal with the pain, and get to my volunteer post. Not because doing so will alleviate my suffering but because I will be living in accordance with what I value regardless of suffering. It isn’t about feeling better. It’s about living my values regardless of how I feel. The model’s power comes as we shift from trying to feel better to trying to be better. Regardless of my circumstances, I am better when I live in accordance with my values. When suffering becomes too great sometimes we lose sight of what our values really are. But when we can be led back to them and reclaim them, the choice of what to do becomes clearer.

Stories give us role models for this process. The teen protagonist that survives the fatal virus attack, the alien invasion, or the zombie show down, gives an example of how someone stays true to something important even in grim circumstances. In the best stories, the hero’s triumph is not because of smarts, ingenuity, or good luck although they use those things to good effect. They triumph because they continue to care about something bigger than themselves and live in ways consistent with the values they espouse. That doesn’t always create a happy ending but perhaps it gives us a model of hopefulness, a belief that that seeing another day is worth it if it gives us a chance to live out values we hold dear.

Photocredit: Skylar Searing

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