Finding Hope

“To exist in a hellish state is to be denied forever the promise of hope, of redemption, of love. To those who have been forsaken, hell has no geography.” -John Connolly

“We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve been trying for months now to write about hope. I’ve spent several ink cartridges, crumpled countless sheets of yellow paper as I work through drafts, and have continuously found myself coming short of the mark; without a whole lot of clarity as to what the mark was to begin with. It strikes me that this difficulty in writing about hope mirrors the difficulty I’ve had holding on to hope in my own spirit. One of the foundational concepts in mental health recovery (or any recovery, for that matter) is hope. In order to get out of bed and face the day, we need hope. In order to have the courage and strength needed to battle our inner demons and seek healing, we need hope. In order to pick ourselves up, time and again, after we fall down, we need hope. In order to live day by day in a meaningful existence, we need hope.

Growing up in the Evangelical Christian Church, I learned to draw my hope from the certainty of future events and places. The pain and suffering of this life would be proven worth it at the end as the wicked were punished and sent to hell while the righteous were welcomed into heaven where there was no more pain, no more tears. As I grew older and my eyes became more open to the world, this belief system began to shift. Hell was no longer a distant place, it was an ever-present reality. A reality in which a young girl is raped and beaten by her father and his friends, where children lose life and limb as collateral damage in senseless wars, where infants are born dependent on heroin and other illicit drugs, where a woman is beaten by her husband day after day and her children are forced to watch, where children as young as 7 years old decide to hang themselves because life is just too painful and they’ve lost all hope of redemption. This is hell, and a hell created entirely by humankind.

It is easy to lose hope in this seemingly hellish existence, we don’t have to look far to find pain and suffering. But there is also, if we look closely enough, healing and strength. And hope.

In the work that I do, I have the honor of listening to people’s stories, and helping them to identify and draw on their own internal strengths and resources. There is often incredible suffering and injustice in these stories and I am continually amazed at the inhumanity that humans are capable of displaying toward one another. But I am also in perpetual awe of the strength, resilience, and grit that people show by surviving and finding healing from these wounds. When the parents of a child who has committed suicide are able to forgive themselves and create meaning out of their loss by spreading awareness and tools to keep more children from taking their lives, there is hope. When a battered woman is able to find safety, heal from her wounds, and use her story to reach out and help others, there is hope. When people get tired of seeing the innocent injuries of war and rise up to question and protest their government’s military interventions, there is hope. When a young woman is able to recover from the trauma of her childhood and help give voice to others who are suffering, there is hope. Where there is healing, there is hope; and while it may at times be hard to see, there is healing all around us.

For a good portion of the last 10 years of my life, I have had trouble hanging on to hope, expecting hope to present itself to me as a long-lost friend. But I’m recognizing that finding hope is my own personal responsibility, and I’m learning to find it again. In spite of the finite disappointments of this world, I cannot lose hope of the infinite possibilities. A life without hope is indeed a hellish existence.

These days, I find much of my hope from watching my son grow and develop. He is so enthusiastic about learning and discovering his environment, his talents and abilities, the world is full of possibilities for him, and helps to me hang on to infinite hope. How could this face do anything else?

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How do you find hope in your life?

Picking up the Pieces

One of the most difficult things about a depressive crash, other than the experience of the crash itself, is the recovery process of putting back together all the shattered remnants of your life. At least this is true in my experience, and really can be true of any fall that results in a state resembling rock-bottom, depressive or otherwise. Everywhere there are reminders of the dark places you’ve been, the mistakes that you’ve made, and the people that you’ve hurt. It can fuel the desire to run away, to isolate, or to fall back into old patterns that led to the crash in the first place. If not handled well, it can lead to a vicious cycle that proves incredibly difficult to break.

My old pattern was to change everything about my life after a depressive crash, from my job to my close relations to my living location. I told myself this was all in an effort to have a fresh start, to allow myself to heal and recover. But what it really did was to fuel my denial. If I run away every time I crash, I never have to face the magnitude of my problem. I can tell myself that my depression was only due to my external circumstances, not an internal problem that needs to be addressed. And yet I have continually found myself in many different circumstances, but still wrestling with my demon of depression. The problem lies with me.

There is a movement within the mental health field to adopt a recovery-based approach in addressing mental illness. This makes a lot of sense to me, and I think the 12-step process used by many to recover in addiction can also be used to recover in depression. My first step in learning to better manage my depression was this: “I admitted that I was powerless over my depression and anxiety, that my life had become unmanageable”. I have recognized that I cannot do this on my own. My depression is not a character flaw that I can just work on by myself and make it go away. It is a part of me, and it has to be managed so that I can continue to live a rich and meaningful life. But I cannot manage it by myself, I need help…from friends and a strong support network, from regular therapy, from tools such as exercise and mindfulness, and from medication. I have given up my sense of control over my depression, I am allowing it to exist, and I am learning to manage it as a chronic condition.

For quite some time, I have not managed my depression well. In fact, I have avoided even admitting that it exists. This has led to a massive blindspot in my existence…as I spend time helping others to manage their emotions and mental health more effectively, I have failed to apply those lessons to my own life and have lived in a sort of juvenile emotional state. When I am depressed, I avoid my friends by not returning their calls or coming up with excuses when invited to spend time with them, I become irritable and explosive with my wife and am emotionally unavailable, I stop doing things around the house like cleaning and cooking, and I neglect responsibilities like work and paying bills on time. All of these things have consequences, and while I recognize they are a symptom of my illness, I also recognize that it is my responsibility to manage my depression so that it does not so significantly interfere with my life. I must own up to this, and I must work to repair relationships that have been damaged and attend to responsibilities that have been neglected. This is a scary process, but one that more often than not bears surprisingly positive results.

When a problem is avoided, it can only become larger. When it is dealt with, it may be painful, but it can no longer grow to the behemoth it often becomes in the mind.

I’m working on owning up to my responsibility in managing my mental health, first by admitting that I actually have a problem, and then by seeking help from powers outside of myself and working to repair the damage caused by my past negligence. I’m finding, thus far, that the people in my life have been incredibly supportive and understanding. Most of the problems that I thought existed were only the creation of my own mind.

It’s not easy to take an honest look in the mirror, take responsibility for our circumstances, and do the hard work to create the lives that we desire. It’s much easier to find fault with our circumstances and with other people in our lives. But anything short of rigorous honesty is living in denial, pure and simple.

Practicing Life

A couple weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast hosting Aaron Rodgers (one of my man-crushes by the way). He was discussing the way in which he used the lack of recognition he got in high school and early college as a motivation to practice harder and put in more time crafting his sport until he finally got the recognition he deserved. Now, he is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the game of football. I’ve also been reading and listening to a lot of podcasts about Grit, this concept of perseverance and passion to continue practicing a skill or sticking with a project, even when it gets tough. I often expect that one day I will simply wake up and have a great idea for the next best-selling book that will land me interviews on all the late-night shows and launch a successful career in writing. But I let many days go by without actually practicing my craft of writing, refining my skill in spite of the absence of “grand ideas”.  At a more basic level, I often hope that one day I will wake up simply feeling happy to be alive and looking forward to the day. Instead of having to work so hard at finding hope and engaging in life, I want hope and a desire to fully engage in life to just manifest themselves out of thin air.

But this hasn’t happened yet. What I’m finding is that engaging in life, just like any other skill, takes practice, which requires grit and determination. When I was younger, I played the trumpet and took weekly lessons from a guy who lived out in the country and had an amazingly beautiful house with a grand piano in the music room where I took my lessons. When I was practicing every day and refining my skill, I looked forward to attending these lessons, excited to show my teacher the progress I had made and continue refining my craft. When I was not practicing regularly, I had no desire to attend my lessons and found all sorts of other things I would rather do. I can’t help but think this is much the same with life. When I am practicing my ability to engage with life and be fully in the present moment, it’s easier to get out of bed in the morning: I look forward to the day and find more reasons to hope.  When I am not practicing…well, we know where that leads.

So, what does it mean to practice engaging in life? One of the tools I’ve found helpful is this notion of “opposite action”, coined by Marsha Linehan. The idea is that every emotion is associated with a behavior, and every behavior with an emotion. When I feel shame, I tend to engage in the behavior of isolation, which leads to more shame. When I feel depressed, I feel complacent and hopeless and the world seems scary, and I often don’t get out of bed because that’s where I feel safe. Staying in bed and isolating myself makes me feel more depressed and ashamed, which leads to more complacency and isolation, and round and round we go. The idea of opposite action is to engage in an a behavior that is associated with a different emotion than what is currently being felt. When I am feeling depressed and ashamed, I can reach out and call someone or engage in a pleasurable activity, which helps to break the cycle of hopelessness. This doesn’t come naturally, it takes determination and practice, but I’m finding that it gets easier over time and I’m able to turn around mood swings that before would last for days on end.

I think this practice of engaging in life can take a lot of different forms, and it takes time and some trial and error to figure out what works. Whether it’s meditation or prayer to ground and center yourself in the present moment, taking a walk outside to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us in spite of all the pain and suffering, calling a friend or writing a letter that expresses how much someone means to you, making a gratitude list, or spending time at the end of each day reflecting on three things that went well. The more I practice engaging in life, the more hopeful I feel, and the more space opens up in my awareness to begin practicing other skills that I care about, such as writing.

The world is not short on pain and suffering. Just a few weeks ago, a local boy of 14 years of age hung himself in a tree outside of his house. I’ve met people who made their first suicide attempt at 7 years old. When children that young feel such a sense of hopelessness that death seems like a better option than life, there has to be a better way. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a rich and meaningful life can be cultivated from the most dire of circumstances, but it takes practice.

Some people may feel a natural inclination toward life and have no trouble with hopelessness and disengagement. But for those of us who face a different path, let us not give up hope. Let us show grit and determination in creating a rich and meaningful life for ourselves, even when it is hard and does not seem fun. Let us show life that we will not be beaten down, and we will not give up.

Let us live in daily practice, knowing that some days we will fail miserably and that failure will make us want to give up. But other days we will find success, and that will provide us with rays of hope and energy that make the continual practice just a little bit easier. We won’t always feel like engaging in life, but that’s why they call it practice. And I have to believe that life is worth it.

The Power of Belief

I finally finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell this morning and was struck by the closing words of the novel, from “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. Here is an excerpt, which I don’t believe requires much additional commentary:

My recent adventures have made me quite the philosopher, especially at night, when I hear naught but the stream grinding boulders into pebbles through an unhurried eternity. My thoughts flow thus. Scholars discern motions in history & formulate the motions into rules that govern the rises and falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes. 

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts. 

What precipitates acts? Belief. 

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history’s Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage, & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, what a weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this:–one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

B.I.B.L.E.

I recently finished reading a wonderfully intriguing book called “The Rise and Fall of the Bible” by Timothy Beal. Much like myself, Beal grew up in the height of Evangelical Christianity, immersed in the perception that the Bible is the direct and inerrant word of God, delivered seamlessly to us through human authors, but authors who were clearly under divine influence. As soon as you begin to learn anything about textual history and translation, as well as the process by which the “canon” of the Bible was decided upon, this view quickly becomes difficult to maintain. Unlike most authors I’ve read since I began de-constructing my faith many years ago, Beal did not try to explain away apparent textual contradictions or questions that arise through the historical investigation of religious texts.

Beal’s premise is essentially that we must learn to look at scriptures through a different lens. What if, instead of being perceived as an instruction manual for life on earth (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), the Bible should be viewed and approached for what it actually is: a collection of stories, prayers, thoughts, and parables representing various ways of thinking about and approaching God throughout a brief period in human history.

Beal suggests that if we allow ourselves to approach the Bible as a conversation starter instead of the place where we go to find all the answers, we just may discover something incredible by listening to the diverse voices that exist in scriptural writing and the diverse responses that people have to those writings. Instead of thinking that there is one single “truth” that exists objectively in the text, and it is our job to find what that truth is and apply it, what would happen if we actually listened to each other and the thoughts, fears, and questions that arise in our souls when we read these confusing texts?

Maybe, just maybe, we could discover a whole new type of “truth”…the magic that can happen when a group of diverse people get together to share thoughts and ideas in a judgement-free zone, deconstruct the teachings of their youth, and discover new meaning together.

Relationship and conversation, these are holy moments where a larger truth can emerge.

Pro-Life?

Congress is heading off today for a 5 week vacation and there appears to be a very decent chance that when they resume their work in September, we could be headed for another budget stalemate over the federal funding of Planned Parenthood in reaction to the recent string of videos released by anti-abortion groups.

First of all, let me say this. I am extremely grateful for Planned Parenthood as an organization, as my wife and I utilized their services when we first got married and had absolutely no money and could not afford contraception. To think that Planned Parenthood is just a place where women go to get abortions is an incredibly ignorant viewpoint, as they provide services covering the full range of women’s health, including cancer screening, HIV screening, and counseling. I am extremely grateful that we were able to rely on this resource in our younger lives, as it gave us a necessary spring board to develop some stability and be better able to support and care for a family.

Now, I really want to deconstruct this term of “pro-life”. I went to a pro-life rally when I was a kid, but it was really quite confusing, because the rally was much more focused on what the group was against (abortion) than what the group was for. If we’re going to be “pro-life”, doesn’t that have a broader meaning beyond just trying to get rid of abortion? For example, the fetal tissue from abortion procedures that is at the heart of the current controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood was being used in research that could lead to new developments in the treatment of illnesses for people who are currently suffering. I’m not saying I love the idea of abortion, but I’d much rather provide women the option of having a clean and safe procedure and use the fetal tissue to further our understanding of medicine and biology than to have women bleeding out in their bathroom from an unsafe procedure or dumping a baby in a dumpster because they just don’t know what else to do.

Here’s the reality: this latest attempt by religious conservatives to cut public funding from Planned Parenthood will, like so many other issues (read: Affordable Care Act), will disproportionately impact the most poor and vulnerable citizens in our society, and that is just plan unjust. Women with resources will always be able to access whatever procedures they want. Women with less resources depend upon services like Planned Parenthood to maintain their health, wellness, independence, and dignity.

Leadership is not always just standing up for what you believe in. It’s also being willing to examine areas where you might be biased, and then it’s speaking up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.

I don’t want to be pissed anymore, I want things to change. Can we please start having reasonable conversations about these important issues, without resorting to name-calling, fear-mongering, and jumping to assumptions before we have all the facts?

Church and State

Was talking with a good friend​ around the fire the other night and sharing my frustration with the toxic influence religious fundamentalism has had on public policy in my lifetime and throughout history. Separation of church and state is for the protection of the state just as much as it is for the protection of the church (if not more-so). In my reading this evening, I came across this quote from the book “Heaven: A History” by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang:

As the Reformation became a political issue for magistrates and princes, Luther and Calvin worked out the practical implications of their teaching more fully. It is impossible “to rule a country, let alone the entire world, by the gospel,” Luther insisted. Since worldly affairs can be successfully conducted by reason and experience, they can be autonomous and independent from religious involvement. “God has placed human civil life under the dominion of natural reason which has ability enough to rule physical things,” the reformer noted; “we need not look to Scripture for advice” in such temporal matters. Even the heathen are blessed with reason and thus are able to live their daily lives.

Now, while I have not tracked down the original writings of Martin Luther and am therefore relying on McDannell and Lang for interpretation and context, I certainly find validity in this idea. In fact, it is the very absence of reason is what leads to atrocious human acts. Like genocide. Or bombing abortion clinics. Or Matthew Shepard.

Instead of allowing ancient religious texts to guide public policy on social moral issues in the twenty-first century, perhaps we should take Luther’s advice and give natural reason a shot.