[Originally written in 2018, edited Sep 2019]

This is such a difficult topic to write on. To be honest, I don’t like reading about cliches - they’re so easy for people to dish out but so difficult to reconcile with the reality of your own life. Usually, the time when I need hope most is when I’d most loathe reading about it. But I’ve come realise over the years that hope is more than an abstraction; it’s essential to living. It pushes us on when we’re in the midst of unbelievable situations; suggests possibilities; and soothes our weary hearts. Losing hope is a sure path to the end of things - life, motivation, possibility; conversely, having hope gives us all of those things, a shimmer at a time, and edges us on to make things work a little better.

What makes us lose hope, anyway? In my experience, it comes from utter disappointment, and often repeatedly. We lose a friend, our health, our jobs, our families; our children or loved ones fall ill suddenly; a major loss besets us - and suddenly we don’t know what life is meant to look like anymore. In many of these cases, things are often beyond our control. But we don’t lose hope at the start of it - we consult experts, talk to others, try to find solutions of our own. In fact, we did have hope. But over time, when things don’t work out the way we expect them to, we just accrue more disappointment, and gradually start to lose hope. Solutions that people offer you sound less enticing than they would just days or months ago, and a heavy fog of skepticism and doubt descend on the way you view your life and its future.

Hopelessness is scary. The more we entertain it, the larger it looms. It’s so easy to engage with it, tossing over and again in our heads how pain is a given, how life is horrible, and how you are the main sufferer of life’s calamities (that isn’t true, by the way). This tossing stems from deep fears and hurts, and sometimes we think that conjuring the worst versions of events prepares us to face their inevitability and closes us off to disappointment. Well, the Stoics did it, right? But I’ve come to realise that doomsday imaginings only bring me into a negative downward spiral, where fear begets fear and feeds on fear. In some strange way the universe and our brains work, hopelessness tends to breed more hopelessness, and disappointment further disappointment - because you learn to expect it, you become hyper-sensitised to disappointments in all your situations. Also, things often turn out the way your narratives predict them to, because narratives (such as “I will always be broke,” “men/women are savage”, “authority figures cannot be trusted”) lead you to behave in a certain way, which in turn causes events or people to respond in ways you believed they would in the first place.

It is perfectly understandable why we have certain narratives as a result of our life experiences, particularly growing up. But we often underestimate the significance of these narratives, and the power they have over our life’s situations. Hopeless and damning narratives don’t yield fruit, or perhaps only the bitter kinds which do little for our situations. If we want good-tasting fruit, we need hopeful narratives.

Perhaps it’s worth holding onto hope and meaning through life’s ridiculous vicissitudes. Out of sheer necessity, we need it to live on. But what is hope anyway? A missionary once crystallised it for me at the side of my hospital bed when he told me that hope and faith are the substance of things unseen. The things not yet present, visible, tangible - even seemingly possible - to you right now. The physical manifestation of things that have not come, but which you yearn for. “Don’t you imagine yourself wearing these hospital clothes, lying in bed, and not being able to do anything”, he said. “See yourself doing what you want to do when you get well! What are they…?”

I closed my eyes, and imagined. I imagined myself hiking, skiing, and learning how to dive. I imagined myself travelling to different parts of the world, tasting different cultures and enjoying conversations with people I’d never met before. And I imagined myself at work, thriving, or singing, doing the best I can with newfound meaning. It was a far cry from where I was at that point, but I imagined.

It is said that hopelessness or resignation often sets in when we feel that things are happening beyond our control, and we have no access to resources that can change them. Imagination is a resource. It gives us room to explore possibilities, and create futures, if only in our minds. Sometimes, imagination is powerful enough to get us going for the moment, and the next moment, and the next moment.

When I was discharged from hospital, I started to imagine and put real action to what I could do each day. If I could only lie in bed before, I would try to sit up that day. If I managed to sit up, I would try to stand the next day. And try to walk 10 steps. Then 20. Then 50. Then be able to go out of the house and come back again, quickly. It happened with all aspects, including eating. I’d succeed some days and fail on others, wiping up a mess of puke for the 5th time that day. But then I’d try again. To finish a spoonful of porridge that day, a small bowl a week later, a large bowl a month after.

I just tried, and tried, because I desperately wanted to get better. I wanted to hike, ski, dive. I wanted to do life in all its fullness. Eventually, even though it didn’t take a linear path of recovery for 4 more years after, I got well. (Well, at least they found a drug that worked for now.) I became a better person for it after the ordeal. I’ve also managed to travel extensively since then, hiking in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Hope and faith. Possibilities.

If the reason for hope is too large and far away, it helps to shift our eyes to something smaller - one we can hold onto realistically, and work towards. Yes, sometimes hope does take the form of a broad, compelling goal; but sometimes it requires fulfilling the littlest steps towards restoration. Hope may seem far from us at first, but keeping at it a step at a time could actually save us in the longer term.

In a larger sense, hope also means casting our eyes further to know that even if our specific situation doesn’t turn out okay, life as a whole could still work out. Yes… it hurts like shite. But the truth is, our lives don’t have to depend on that thing, or person, or situation, turning out the way we wanted it to. It will affect us. We will feel desperate and in pain. But we will find the strength to deal with it, and to come out okay. We don’t have to let a failure or weakness at this moment define us or our entire life. We will be okay.

You will be okay.

And even if we’re not okay at the moment, a little bird told me life has always been a cycle of ups and downs anyway. We may be down now, but there will be ups, and then downs, and then more ups again. There will be an up from your current down. The crucial thing to realise is that we are not powerless, and we often have more choices than we think. Let’s give ourselves another chance at winning, and start with the small things.

Let’s have hope.


Jean TanComment