I have observed an all-too common ingredient in despair. It 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 noticed that quite a number (but not all) of those who suffer despair are given to thinking that they know how everything is, and how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, may not know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves in time. Deep hope requires patience and endurance.
This is why philosophers have always seen hope as a core virtue. Modern research backs this up, showing that hope is vital for both resilience and success. But there are numerous reasons why you should cultivate it. 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. Hope is one of the most important ingredients in our lives. It deserves your attention and cultivation.
I'm going to tell a story which will disturb some people, because it's cruel, but it teaches an important lesson. 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 could 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 further rest, for an average of 60 hours before drowning. Yes, from 15 minutes, to 60 hours! 240 times longer.
What was going on? Well, the researchers surmised that by lifting the rats out that one time, they had been trained to have hope. And the consequence of that hope was 240 times more endurance! 240 times more resilience.
We need to find rich and deep sources of hope in our lives. They will lead to flourishing in good times. And they will get us through the bad.
I have suffered some painful and dark moments in my life, and at my lowest I once instinctively formulated a question which has since guided me through tough times. It has been like a resilience mantra for me. And so I have shared it with others, for example suicidal clients, and have witnessed it have the same effect over time on some of them. I think it may 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 this question, 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 any such 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? To do so you will need, in the meantime, to have endured patiently, building strength through waiting, strength though practising deeper hope. Strength that can serve them when they - and your further purpose - are revealed.
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 will build the qualities needed from you 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. Stop deciding everything, and learn to wait and listen. Who needs you up ahead? Are you making yourself ready for them?