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?


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?


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.


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.


I’ve been relatively quite for a while, the verboseness of my twenties being replaced with a crippling fear about how I’ll be perceived if I start actually speaking up for what I believe in. Will my friends and family still love me when they find out how differently I view the world than how I was raised? How many more conversations do I have to endure in which it is hinted that people who think like me will be responsible for the ultimate downfall of society? Where people are less interested in the content of what I’m saying and more interested in proving their staunchly-held beliefs that if we could just get everyone back in line with the will of God then everything would be okay.

Let’s remember that it is in the name of this same God that some of the worst atrocities in human history have been carried out, all focused around the idea that a group of humans knew God’s will and saw it as their destiny to carry it out. Murdering millions of native americans as part of “manifest destiny” or the attempted establishment of the true kingdom of god through the violence of the crusades are just two historic examples. The most recent example can be seen in the images of ISIL destroying ancient artifacts and launching attacks on “infidels” in their own attempt to create heaven on earth.

I’m tired of living in a world in which the only problems that exist are those of our own creation. I’m tired of belonging to a race that can turn on itself so easily and inflict such terrible suffering and violence on its own kind…what other species on this entire planet exhibits that same self-destructive behavior? I’m tired of watching people run around in anxiety to create some sort of meaning out of their existence, all too often at the expense of other’s well-being.

But more than tired, I’m downright pissed off. I’m angry that we have numerous elected officials who, in the last round of campaigning, publicly talked about things like “legitimate rape”, and a woman not getting pregnant by rape if it wasn’t God’s will, and still got elected. I’m pissed off that some of the most loving people I know in my friends and family have been so hateful in their speech toward our current president and toward members of the LGBTQ community. I’m angry that scientific advancements are consistently ignored and shunned in favor of ancient religious texts that have gone through countless interpretations and are often misinterpreted. I’m angry that people seem to get so comfortable in their thinking they are not even willing to listen to anything that may disconfirm their assumptions.

But here’s what I’m most angry about: this ill-conceived belief that seems to exist that the United States is supposed to be a “Christian” nation. Bullshit. This country existed long before my people ever came here, and it was inhabited by a sustainable and spiritual existence based on the earth. elements, and seasons. Then a group of people fleeing the religious tyranny of another nation landed on these shores in an attempt to set up a state in which all were free to worship the god of their choosing. This same group then proceeded to expand westward, killing and claiming land as they saw fit for their new nation, referred to by some as the “new Jerusalem”. Now, centuries, later, far from actually having religious freedom, the religious right has infiltrated the Republican party and attempted to establish its own form of a moral kingdom on earth, free from all those pesky social evils like falling in love and having a family with a person of the same sex.

A lot of my friends and family right now are scared of where the country is headed because of all the liberal progress that’s been made on social moral issues over the last few years. I’m scared as well, but not because of the progress. I’m scared at how people are responding to the progress with such hate and vitriol that it makes me want to cry. After I hit things repeatedly in a fit of rage.

What the hell are we doing to each other?


I was recently feeling a bit bogged down in my thinking and in need of some perspective. So, I did what I usually do when I’m feeling down. I headed for the woods.

The weather of the day was not exactly welcoming and visibility on the hike up was limited to about 25 feet. I remember thinking on the hike up that the scene was eerily resemblant of how I had been experiencing my life: in a fog, only able to see a limited distance in front of me, and not entirely sure of where I was going.

By the time I reached the top, the dreary weather had cleared, the fog had lifted, and this is what I saw:


Suddenly, all the problems of my life that were clouding my vision seemed so small and insignificant. It’s amazing what a little perspective will do.

I think it’s important to find ways to restore perspective in our lives, especially in the current reality that throws a new sensory stimulus our way with each passing second. Some people refer to this as prayer, some as meditation, some as mindfulness, some as quieting the mind.

I had a professor in grad school who used to talk about the importance of taking time to step up on the balcony of your life to look down on the scene. If we spend all our time down in the midst of the party that is our life, we can lose sense of who we are and what is important to us. That trip up to the balcony, however it happens, reminds us of our values so that we can act with intention instead of wasting our time reacting to circumstantial developments.

Take time to restore perspective today. You can’t afford not to.

On Being Whole

The research I have been working on of late has led me to read some writers in the fields of Psychology and Religion from earlier decades. One of these is Erik Erikson, who wrote extensively about the development of identity. In his book Identity Youth and Crisis, published in 1968, he used the terms “totality” and “wholeness” in discussing identity development:

As a Gestalt, then, wholeness emphasizes a sound, organic, progressive mutuality between diversified functions and parts within an entirety, the boundaries of which are open and fluid. Totality, on the contrary, evokes a Gestalt in which an absolute boundary is emphasized: given a certain arbitrary delineation, nothing that belongs inside must be left outside, nothing that must be outside can be tolerated inside. A totality is as absolutely inclusive as it is utterly exclusive–whether or not the category-to-be-made-absolute is a logical one, and whether or not the constituent parts really have an affinity for one another. 

The fundamental notion here, I believe, is the difference between a strongly organized sense of self that is adaptable to change and one that is less adaptable to change. Boundaries, in and of themselves are not inherently bad. As we develop and mature through different stages of the life cycle, boundaries and rules are often what keep us safe and secure, helping us to maintain a positive developmental trajectory. Without established boundaries, could a 3 year old be trusted to inherently understand the dangers of running out into the street without first checking for oncoming traffic?

Boundaries also help us to form our sense of self and our place in the world, they help us to define what we are and what we are not. Problems ensue, however, when those boundaries become either too restrictive or are held so rigidly that an identity crisis can ensue when life experience challenges previously held assumptions. Change is the one thing that we can expect to be a constant in this life. Adaptability to change, therefore, is an essential component of maintaining health and well-being. If I draw my sense of identity from rigidly held boundaries of what I am and am not, without a strong internally organized sense of how all my experience and knowledge fits together to form the person I am becoming, then I am much more likely to have struggles with my sense of identity as I encounter change and work to interpret and resolve new experiences with my worldview.

Gordon Allport, in his book The Individual and his Religion, published in 1951, wrote about religious identity development and the importance of considering religious identity in psychological research, as it is often the most deep-seated and unexamined aspect of individual (as well as collective) identity. He argued for the importance of developing a mature sense of religious identity, one that relied less on rules, regulations, and boundaries, and more on an internalized sense of spiritual principles. This mature sense of religious identity is less concerned with convincing others to think and believe in the same way and more concerned with helping others to come to their own internalized sense of peace and wholeness with their religious and spiritual identity; there is a basic recognition that diversity of religious experience parallels the diversity of individuals themselves.

An interesting aspect of studying to become a counselor is the necessity of self-examination as part of the learning process. How can I lead someone else where I have yet to go? One of the things I have noticed about myself is how quickly I often rush to judgement of another human being. I assume that I know a person’s motivation, or their character, or some other aspect of their identity based on an incredibly limited perspective. And I do not believe this is a problem unique to my experience; I think many of us have a natural tendency to rush to judgement.

Jesus talks about this in the Holy Bible when he condemns the hypocrisy of pointing out the speck in a neighbors eye while failing to recognize the log in one’s own eye.

I can’t help but wonder, how much conflict would dissipate if we all spent more time resolving our own problems before rushing to the judgment of others?

Jesus also talks about the need to see things from the perspective of another, the idea of walking a mile in the shoes of another.

How many problems could be resolved if more of us learned to see things from an alternate perspective?

I was thinking about all this today when I heard part of a piece on NPR about the need for humanities in higher education. Last week, PBS Newshour interviewed Charles Murray, the author of Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. He talked about the need for a humanities-based education that focuses more on development of a strong individual sense of self and one’s place in the world in order to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing economy. As opposed to teaching specific skills that are geared toward workplace needs that will likely change by the time students are ready to enter the workforce, this approach would focus more on helping students to develop a strong sense of identity that will lead to continued successful adaptation to change, the only constant in life.

Boundaries can be helpful, and they can be comforting in the sense of security that they often grant us. But they cannot be the totality of our identity. If I draw my sense of self from external boundaries as opposed to an internally organized sense of self that works to constantly interpret and reconcile new experiences with my ever-expanding worldview, change will be much harder for me to endure.

I, for one, am working to become more whole. I have spent too many years not knowing myself.