As the weeks of this pandemic have turned into months it’s easy for the heart to sink.
There’s enough bad news to feed our anxieties and worst fears. In the face of so much hardship and uncertainty, it can feel naïve to hope. Yet the alternate seems even bleaker: giving up, feeling hopeless, or falling into despair—none of which is useful.
In times like these, we’re called to examine our understanding of hope, and to find a more grounded, reliable source of energy.
A recent piece in the Atlantic tells the story of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who spent seven years in horrific conditions as a prisoner-of-war during Vietnam. He noted that fellow prison-mates who were optimistic always broke, as one deadline after another passed.
This is the trap of what I call ‘ordinary hope,’ which leaves us in a tenuous position. It places our wellbeing on an uncertain future beyond our control and ignores our agency in the here and now. When the wished-for outcome isn’t realized, we are crushed.
Stockdale’s strategy, which helped him get through those painful years and come out the other side more resilient, was hope with realism. He spoke of “the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail… [and] the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”
This is practical hope. It’s a stable outlook that starts where we are, recognizes that we're not in control, and still chooses to engage. We assess not only the reality of what’s happening around us, but also our own internal resources and capacities. When we include both our external and internal reality, we can begin to respond effectively.
From all signs and predictions, we’re in this for the long haul.
Sure, we won’t be locked in our homes forever, but physical distancing, masks, and a certain level of hypervigilance around health and proximity are most likely here to stay for a while.
Instead of placing your hopes on “things going back to normal,” or berating yourself about what you “should be doing,” how would it be to ask yourself, “What’s possible right now?” What can you do today that will lift your spirits or orient you in a useful direction?
In this sense, practical hope is something that we do, more than something we have. It’s a way of engaging our hearts so that we align ourselves with what’s most important to us, and live in line with our values.
All of us have been called to change and adapt our lives during this pandemic. That begins by recognizing what is possible, and taking a small step in that direction. Then, regardless of the outcome, we can be at ease knowing that we’re acting with integrity and playing our small part.