A common ingredient in despair is the belief that you know everything. We usually define despair as the opposite of hope, which is correct, but there is also delusion in it. I have observed that people in despair often think they know how everything is, and how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, does not always know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves in time. Deep hope requires patience, endurance, fortitude.
This is why philosophers have always seen hope as a "cardinal" - or core - virtue. Modern research backs this up, showing that hope is vital for resilience and achievement. But I have another reason why you should cultivate it, and I can express it in different ways. You need hope in order to answer your calling. You need hope in order to find your purpose. You need hope in order to properly love those who most need you.
Let's take things down a few notches for a moment. In the 1950s a gruesome experiment was conducted on rats. They were dropped into buckets of water and were 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 result? The rats who experienced this went on to swim without rest for an average of 60 hours before drowning. Yes, from 15 minutes, to 60 hours! 240 times longer. Effectively, by lifting the rats out at first, they had been trained to have hope. And the consequence of hope was 240 times more resilience!
Today I have a question for you that can instil hope, so you can keep swimming until the shore arrives. But this is less a tool for creating hope, so much as hope is a tool in the service of this question. Huh? I mean that the question points to something beyond hope, which will draw forth more hope.
I have suffered some painful and dark moments in my life and this question has guided me through. It has been like a resilience mantra for me. I have used it with suicidal clients, and have witnessed it have the same effect over time on them. I think it can 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?
Let me unpack that, by starting with the opening words of a poem by 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?
You may have an answer to this: your partner, your children, your wider family. Or maybe you don’t have that answer. In which case you are in waiting. This is a time for deeper hope. You don’t know everything - you don’t yet know who needs you up ahead. But they are there and are no less important just because you are currently ignorant. When the time comes and they are standing before you, will be have become the person they need? Will you have endured patiently, building strength through waiting, strength though practising deeper hope?
You don’t know them yet. Perhaps they are not born yet. But when the time comes they may need you to nurture them. Will you have the selflessness and strength to do this? They may need you to support and protect them. Again, will you have that capacity? Did you waste all those years between now and then brooding on your despair and growing weak? Or, when the day comes, will you have used these years to build the character they need you to have?
What is the world calling for from you? Perhaps you don’t now yet. Good, so this is a time of training and preparation. If you endure in hope you build the qualities you will need when the answer becomes clear. Stop being so short-sighted, as though the present moment is the only moment in life. Stop being so arrogant, as though you know it all and know what, and who, awaits you in the future. The question of your life is what your calling is. Where do your strengths meet the world's need? The needs of particular others in your life? And if that is as yet unclear, and only time can tell, and you must labour under the reality of time and wait, then what do you need to do to be ready when your calling, and the other's need, shows itself? Stop deciding everything, and learn to wait and listen. Who needs you up ahead? Are you making yourself ready for them?