Friday, May 1, 2015

The Necessity of Hope

Last week, I had the unfortunate occasion to attend a wake for the mother of a long-time family friend. When I really step back and think about death- almost take a sort of non-emotional, or neutral (as possible) perspective of it- of what it does to survivors and the kinds of unanswerable questions it brings up- I realize it is such a beyond-us thing, no matter what explanation we draw up for it.

It brings up so many feelings that are so un-navigable and scary: fear and grief among them. And there is (though nothing is really so permanent and concrete) something so mysterious and loss-inducing about it. 

It's very strange somehow, no matter what your perspective on the spectrum of 'complete faith that there is an eternal life' or 'complete certainty that there is not,' there is still an unknown- and for the survivors, what seems like the most impossibly heavy form of the human experience of loss- and heartache. 

I had an interesting experience at this particular wake service that really made me think. I hadn't ever personally met the deceased; we were neighbors with her son's family for many years when I was young. But I did know this about her: she was a Holocaust survivor. She lived to be ninety-six, and her daughter-in-law, a close friend of my mother's, talked to both of us about her life story.
She watched both of her parents starve to death in concentration camps, and was separated from her husband during the war. Once it ended, they were unable to find each other; like many survivors, they didn't even know whether the other was still alive. For three years she lived with the ambiguity that the person she loved was or was not even alive. Then, through a mutual acquaintance, they were reunited, and they had their son.

And his wife, standing there telling us this story, also had this to say about her mother-in-law: that she was the most positive person she knew.

And this reminded me of something that comes up a lot in my life, and has been even more so lately: 

There is always, if you look closely, a high correlation between undergoing extreme suffering (or any, really, for that matter), and understanding the necessity of hope in people who choose to rebuild, reclaim, and live a life that overcomes and utilizes that suffering for not just their own well-being, but also for the well-being of others

People who have suffered (which is everybody) and can still walk through life with a genuine, deep, immovable sense of enjoyment, positivity, and joy in every moment (which is, well, not everybody)- they are problem-solvers, they are realists, often because they have had to develop this skill to survive. So they are creative: they see how something in one form can become something in another- healed, renewed, reborn form- and they persist in getting there. 

We have all suffered. Of course the degree of suffering of a person who endured the Holocaust is different from one who has endured childhood divorce, say; or abuse, or a war... the list goes on in terms of how suffering exists, but to the individual having the experience- whatever one it is- the pain is literally immeasurable against others' experiences, purely because it is personal. This is why it never works to remind others who are sad that 'it could be worse:' very simply, because the experience of pain that they are having is theirs, and it isn't worse. It's the experience of that pain that hurts them, so comparison to other experiences of pain that they are not having does no real good.
But the fundamental human means of surviving suffering are the same. The development of wisdom and a vision of goodness arises in survivors; the development of cynicism and a mentality of hopelessness develops in victims

Survivors do not give up over long periods of time when healing seems impossible. Survivors have the insight and inner fortitude to seek the answers they don't yet have, to see the bigger picture; people who perceive themselves as victims do not. The mentality of a survivor a victim might call naive or impossible: seeking hope where hope seems impossible. But it's exactly this process, and having the courage to walk through it, that changes life, that makes healing possible: the process of knowing what hope is.

And hope is a funny thing. When I think of my own experiences, and I look back on my own life, I can see periods where a lot was lived in darkness and (what I thought at the time was) hopelessness. There were times of pain, trial, conflict, divorce, abuse, sickness; many of us have lives that contain seasons of some or all of these things. 

And it is the story you tell yourself about what these experiences make you worth that determines whether you heal and survive them- or whether you are controlled by them and continue to live the remainder of your life as a victim of them. 

You can tell a lot about a person's character by the amount of opposition it takes to discourage them- and only for someone with a deep and authentic sense of hope, is there no amount of opposition too big that exists. It's not a naive positivity over time that they possess, but a creative capacity to acknowledge the very positive results that inevitably come with a trust in a vision that unfolds before them.
Whatever story you tell yourself, whatever script you continue writing about what your life means or is worth, will determine whether or not you make the inner space for the foresight needed to allow healing over time. The passage of time alone has nothing to do with the outcome: the outcome is a choice to have hope over the course of that passing time. Hope as defined as an active investment in your own personal ability to problem-solve, create solutions, let go, and move with an deep-seated, inner strength and awareness of a reality that extends beyond the one you're in.

The practice of hope, I have learned, opens you up to things you never thought possible. It's not naive or foolish, but wise, insightful, active, and strong. It is a lens that lets you see clearly not only this existence, but, for the Christian, the next one. So you are free from suffering on earth- not pain, but suffering; you can act without fear and in love. Without a sense of where you are going, these actions are, at a convicted, consistent, unchanging heart-level, impossible.

At a younger age it was common for me (like, I am learning, it is common for many people) to victimize myself without even realizing it. To always point fingers or blame the other party when there's a conflict or disagreement. To have an 'it's never my fault' or 'you need to see it my way' mentality: to be unaccountable to anyone but themselves, and therefore never able to be wrong.

People who think they are victims stir up strife and don't listen to the needs of others with love and intentionality because they don't want their own personal worldview- the fixed story they are so sure they know about themselves- to be threatened. I short, they live in fear, not freedom or love.
A victim's mentality manifests in trying to appear to have a great deal of knowledge or wisdom, but to be more ultimately interested in control over the way of life that they have set forth- acting as their own judge and believing everyone else should conform to their standards.

Ultimately, to believe that the only story they have experienced is the only story possible- over a long period of time, until it becomes their nature, their character. Who they are and what their identity is. But when we get our identity in God alone, we are free from ever feeling defeated by what happens to us in the world. We have pain, of course; but it doesn't eliminate joy

The experience and the stories of others show us all the time that people can and do change from one to the other, from feeling like victims to feeling free. And people can continue changing, and not only their situations but their hearts- their innermost convictions and sensibilities about who they are- can become better. 

Before I was a Christian, I think because I did have what I perceived was a less-than-perfect life (it seems funny to say that now, since I'm now aware that that's what we all have), hope was something I didn't want to believe was possible. 

And the absence of hope eliminates a lot of Biblical teaching and thus Biblical living: hope is central to character development, spiritual development, the ability to love other people, the ability to love oneself; the ability to encourage, to lift others up selflessly and genuinely; and to live with the fullest, most authentic gratitude for this life, free from entitlement. 
Hope makes us attentive and present because it makes us free. By it we are humbled out of self-righteousness and into more mature, creative ways of living, because our sense of self no longer comes from what has been done to us, or what we have done, or what we can work out logically on our own.

It enables forgiveness, and true, no-walls-up human connection. And what we all deeply want: love.

Holding on to the more non-theistic belief (which I did for the majority of my life) that hope needs to be eliminated from the mindset in order for non-attachment and reality to appear, that we can't always be 'holding the hand' of some supernatural personification just to get out of the present moment because we're too uncomfortable with it- if I'm going to be brutally honest about it- didn't do a whole lot to enhance my creative ability, my ability to forgive, my ability to love, and my ability to live a passionate life worth sharing, and connecting, and creating

Hope is active, not blind; loving and alive, not submissive and passive. I think we're truly wired to have hope, that it's deeply within us- and for more than just beauty but survival, as I mentioned earlier- and to deny that we feel it is not to say that we don't, in our innermost being, feel it.

I think to draw people closer to God is to exemplify that hope is a reality, and to pull them further from Him is to suggest that the possibility of something greater is obsolete or unnecessary. And that is a point of view, of course, but I've found that it doesn't get you anywhere worth going. There really is the very realistic possibility of freedom, purpose, and constant joy in this life, and we must pursue it in love if we are to find it.

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