Cheap, Crappy Hope (Part 1 of 3)

I settle for cheap, crappy hope. I think many of us do. Because when our stories are written with the pen of brokenness and we bear the inevitable scars of life, our wounds reduce real transformation and redemption to a fairytale. We are like people born and raised on a mountaintop, accustomed to living on thin air, ignorant to the rich, life-giving oxygen below. We are born blind—we have no vision for real, life-shaking, story-changing, world-altering transformation. We are hopeless in the fullest sense; we have not lost hope—we have simply never known it to exist.

My four-year-old son, Quinn, has never been able to hear completely out of his right ear. Although pediatricians repeatedly gave him a clean bill of health, he struggled to hear, his speech lagged, and his frustration often boiled over into rage. Only recently, a specialist determined that, due to mysterious causes, he carries fluctuating levels of fluid in his inner ear, resulting in impaired hearing and a level of negative pressure that, to quote the doctor, “would be painful enough to put most adults on the floor.” Quinn has never known anything else. Quinn’s story is one told in a muted world, with unpredictable and excruciating pain. He cannot fathom anything else, so he never complains, never pleads for something better. Most days, he suffers quietly.

I listen to similar stories of this-is-all-there-is brokenness every day. Stories in which anger has been the only way to feel and to relate, in which painful and violating touches have been the only way of life. Stories in which parental breath smells like beer and fathers go directly from work to the Lazyboy. Stories resulting in the logical assumption that parents aren’t supposed to be interested in their children. Stories in which believing in something means hating everyone who doesn’t. Stories in which pimples and peers were a devastating combination. Stories in which perfection was not considered an unattainable goal, but a daily expectation with shameful consequences. We live these stories, and a life of pain and suffering becomes a given, like the ground you walk on or the sky over your head.

Yet, people cannot live without hope.

We are terribly resilient. Deep down, we know that we need hope like oxygen, so we refuse the fate of a hopeless life. So, living blind to the possibility of real transformation and healing and flourishing, we settle for cheap, crappy hope. We latch on to small, cheap objects and promises, and we suck heavily on the thin air of crummy hope. This kind of hope comes to us in so many disguises: the release of a new video game, a bottle, good grades and a prestigious college, the triumph of our favorite athletic team, a new outfit that turns heads and earns attention, a better job, a Facebook comment, a better house in the best school system, the promise of a spouse who will never disappoint us, or the achievements of our children. These are good things, even wonderful things. They bring enjoyment to life and they are meant to do so. But the moment they become our hope, we are in trouble. Because when the video game starts to bore you, or the team loses, or the outfit gets too tight, or the spouse turns out to be human, or the kids turn out to be kids, our wispy-thin hope gets shattered. Cheap hope feels good for a while. But it has an ugly underbelly—when we settle for breathing the depleted air of cheap hope, the redemptive chapters of our stories go unwritten, awaiting an author with a vision for something more.

We need to wake up to the cheapness of our flimsy hope.

And we can wake up. We can become aware of the possibility of more and the hope that goes along with it. The awakening is a gift, often unsought but always welcomed like deep gulps of fresh air. You may have lived a life in which your mother’s anger and abuse were unquestioned, until that day when your boyfriend’s mom smiled at you—her eyes were kind and when she complimented the color of your eyes, you knew she meant it. And the words were like oxygen. Or, you assumed every family had a fridge just for the beer and that all dads lived in front of the television, until one day after school you went home with a friend. And it was you and he in the driveway with his dad, a ball, and a hoop-—his dad wasn’t allowed to block shots and everybody was drinking ice water. And it was more than your thirst that got quenched. Or, you didn’t even realize your parents were disinterested in you until your college roommate stayed up all night with you listening to your story. And suddenly, new storylines felt possible. Or you didn’t realize you could go to church without hating half the people in the country until you found a church on campus freshman year, where they welcomed you and it didn’t matter who you voted for or how many skeletons you had in your closet. Or it never occurred to you that you were loved only when you were perfect, until you botched the dishwasher repair, and your wife broke out in laughter that was laced with love instead of shame. When hope breaks in like this, it can change everything.

Quinn is finally being treated for his ear problem. His hearing is improving, and the pain is decreasing. It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s a long way from perfect, but he is beginning to understand that his brokenness is not the only way, that healing may bring something vastly different and new. Last night at the dinner table, after several requests for us to repeat ourselves, I watched him stop for a minute, wheels turning beneath his deep, serious eyes. And then he leaned gently over to his mother, turning his head to the other side, and he asked, “Momma, can you tell me in this ear, it’s clean.”

It’s clean—this is the way I’m supposed to hear, and now I know the difference. I want it to sound this way; I want it to be this way. Quinn has had a glimpse of real healing, and he is trading in the cheap hope of parents repeating themselves, of guessing at what people are saying and struggling to follow conversations, for the possibility of real transformation.

We need to wake up to this big, beautiful, overwhelming hope. I think we need to begin by deciding we have endured enough brokenness, by deciding we aren’t going to wait any longer to be surprised by hope, by deciding we are going to become people who act like hope exists, even if it is an act of faith. I think we need to start by identifying the broken pieces of our lives and then deciding that each and every one can be redeemed. We need to quit anesthetizing ourselves to our disappointment and disillusionment by adopting cheap, transient sources of hope. We need to have compassion for the blindness with which we have lived, but we need to settle for nothing less than a life that tells a new story. And we need to believe that no one else is going to write the new story for us. We need to write our life-stories with the pen of hope, stories that heal us, and that in the healing become bigger than us. Stories that create healing in the world. Lives that give birth to new hope for a world that is so desperately in need of it.


What’s Your Story: Have you ever been surprised by hope? A friend, a teacher, a stranger who showed you a better way? We all need to hear your story of surprising hope. It will wake us up. If you feel so inclined, please feel free to share your story in the comments. If you are reading this by e-mail or RSS feed, click here to comment.

Note: Next week, I plan to post Part 2 of this reflection on hope, and it will focus on why hope is more than wishful thinking, why it is a transformative force in our lives. If you would like to be notified of that and future posts, you can subscribe by e-mail in the sidebar. You can also receive notification by joining me on Twitter or Facebook. And, as always, thanks for reading. It’s a gift.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

13 thoughts on “Cheap, Crappy Hope (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Thank you! And wonderful to hear of hope transformed in Quinn*s hearing. It strikes me that our hopes are always limited, and just the beginning. Thanks again for your reflection!

  2. Wow. I’m so glad you decided to start the series, Kelly. This is a fantastic opener. Having grabbed my share of cheap crappy hope (and now having tasted the much more pleasant, long-lasting, healing variety), I finished reading through tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat and pain in my heart.

    To paraphrase, “The possibility of real transformation is a big, beautiful, overwhelming hope.” Absolutely – and when my lungs loosen up and I can breathe normal again, I have a few people I’ll be sharing that thought with.

    Your son sounds like an inspiration, and your love for him comes through loud and clear. Here’s to a complete healing.

    Hugs to you and yours, Kelly. Thank you.

  3. Reblogged this on Life – It's a Work In Progress and commented:
    I’m sure tomorrow’s post will come out just like it’s supposed to, on schedule and all that good stuff. -BUT- I had to share this blog from Dr. Kelly Flanagan at UnTangled. Warning: bring tissues!

  4. Pingback: Reblog: Cheap, Crappy Hope (Part 1) — Life - It's a Work in Progress
  5. A story of surprising hope? Yes, the day a friend said to me, “Gosh, you don’t deserve to have your husband treating you this way.” This opened up a whole conversation about how husbands are supposed to be treating their wives. Information that I was never before given. It started me on a journey that took me away from an abusive relationship and finding peace in my life.

    • Thank you, Debbie, for the reminder that a sudden and probably somewhat startling confrontation can be the seed of hope, if we are open to receiving it. May your peace continue to grow.

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  7. A few years ago, my daughter and her eight housemates at university spent their senior year spring break at my house in Victoria, BC. I was very nervous about the visit (would they get bored, what would they eat, etc?) and also wondered how they would all get along for a week in close quarters. And most importantly, what did they expect from me?

    They arrived in their big rental van after driving up the west coast from Santa Barbara. Turns out the visit was magical. The girls created their own fun when they weren’t exploring the city. Over meals they had animated conversations on meaningful subjects and listened closely. The real surprise was how they treated each other. The intense support, interest, and love they shared was beautiful to see. They were always creating positive energy, laughing, and having a great time. There was never even a hint of selfish behavior. They were Together.

    Their visit came at a point when I had become dangerously reclusive. I’d been working at home for years and had developed a fear of going out and being with people. I was convinced I was better off alone. Seeing how these nine twenty-year-olds related was transformative for me. I saw what a “community” could look like and, because they always included me, I knew how it felt: fantastic! It was an unexpected gift of hope, not only for myself but for the next generation.

    • Claudia, thank you. We need refuges in the world like the one your daughter has formed. What a blessing that they welcomed you into it! Thank you for sharing part of your story with us.

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