I've noticed something about despair, and the way people speak when they suffer from it. They often talk as if they know how everything will turn out. But in fact they don't. The opposite of despair is hope, but there are other elements involved. In this case arrogance and delusion. Genuine hope does not always know what it hopes for. The hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves. That might take a long time, and so hope is an act of endurance and courage. To hope in this was makes you more resilient now, but it also makes you a better person in the future. And so your present suffering - which you will get through - is also a training ground for something profound. That's the topic of this reflection.
For two thousand years in the West philosophers and theologians have praised hope as a primary virtue. Modern research shows how fundamental it is. You need hope to persevere in the face of suffering. You need hope to make your life better. You need hope to properly love those who most need you, and to make the world better. But how do you cultivate hope when you have nothing to base it on, no sense of how things will turn out? And when you fear they will go terribly wrong?
In the 1950s an important if gruesome experiment was conducted on rats. They were dropped into buckets of water and timed to see how long they would swim before they drowned. The rats swam for an average of 15 minutes before giving up and drowning. Then on a mere hunch the experimenter tried something different. Just as a rat was giving up he would take it out of the water, dry it, give it a short rest, and then place it back in the water. The result? The rats who experienced this break went on to swim, without further rest, for an average of 60 hours before drowning! From 15 minutes to 60 hours! 240 times longer.
This is an example of how powerful hope is, if only you can find it.
I have suffered some painful and dark moments in my life, and once at my lowest I instinctively formulated a question, which has since guided me through tough times. It has been like a resilience mantra. I have shared it with others, for example suicidal clients, and have seen it have the same effect on some of them. Maybe it will help you. This is a question to ask yourself whenever you lose your sense of meaning and purpose and are tempted to despair:
Who needs you up ahead?
The question reminds me of one of my favourite Australian poems, by the writer David Malouf.
Through all those years keeping the present
open to the light of just this moment:
that was the path we found, you might call it
a promise, that starting out among blazed trunks
the track would not lead nowhere, that being set
down here among wild lemons, our bodies were
expected at an occasion up ahead
that would not take place without us.
You are expected at an occasion up ahead that will not take place without you. Others are waiting there, and they need you. So I ask again, who needs you up ahead?
Maybe you have an answer to this: your partner, your children, your wider family. But maybe you don’t. You lack the knowledge. In which case you need to wait and endure, as things reveal themselves across time. Which means this is a context for deeper hope. You don’t know everything - you don’t know who needs you up ahead. But they are there nonetheless, and are no less important just because you are ignorant now.
I have experienced things turning out well - or even wonderfully - in ways I didn't predict. You have too. It was worth the wait. Especially when what emerged was a relationship with somebody I then cared about. My ignorance of them in the past did not erase their value in the present. You are currently in the past, with regards to who you will meet up ahead. And when the time comes and they are standing before you, will you have become the person they need?
If you have endured by holding onto blind hope, you will have become stronger. Stronger in the qualities they will need from you. Stronger in the qualities that your purpose and mission requires. This is a time of training. It's hard? It's bloody hard? So hard you can barely avoid giving up? Of course! That's real training! You are pushed to your edge because it's at the edge that real growth happens.
Stop being so short-sighted as though the present moment is the only moment. Stop being so arrogant as though you know it all, as though you know how the future will turn out. You don't. It's a surprise. And it contains wonderful things, if you orient yourself rightly, and become the kind of person that future needs in order to manifest.
Who needs you up ahead? Are you making yourself ready for them?