Why Sometimes Hope is Hopeless and Hopelessness is Our Best Hope

Hope can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be the worst of things. Because sometimes our numbered days are spent hoping and waiting, instead of acting and living…


Photo Credit: Theen … via Compfight cc

Last March, as the long, bitter Chicago winter wore on, my wife and I started hoping for something different. We began searching for houses in Nashville. Every morning, we’d check our weather app for the temperature in Nashville, and every night we’d scan our email for new home listings.  By the time we fell asleep, we’d be dreaming of an acre of wooded land in the temperate winters and rolling hills of Tennessee.

Summer has arrived in Chicago. We don’t look at the Nashville home listings anymore.

Hope is a wonderful thing when it feels like the wind at our backs, carrying us toward the good things we seek. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes—maybe even most of the time—we hope so we don’t have to change anything at all.

Hope Like a Daydream

Kids sit in school and daydream about summertime so they can endure the monotony of the classroom. Sometimes, we live our lives like dazed schoolchildren: we dream of future possibilities in order to endure present realities. We imagine something beautiful so we can accept something that isn’t. We use our hopes to inoculate ourselves against our lives, instead of allowing our lives to propel us into the things for which we hope.

Hope can be a beautiful thing, because it gives us direction and imbues our lives with a sense of purpose and meaning. But hope can also be the worst of things, because sometimes we settle for having a direction, rather than walking in that direction. Hope can keep us stagnant in a myriad of ways:

High school students hope their study habits will improve with a change of scenery in college, but it doesn’t happen and they fail out.

Young people hope they will feel more secure once they are dating and married, but it doesn’t happen and they end up either codependent or divorced.

Married people hope their marriage will get better when a kid comes along—and then they hope it will get better when the kids leave home—but it never does and they spend a lifetime waiting for love, instead of learning how to love.

Employees experience an oppressive job and they imagine returning to school and doing the thing they’ve always loved to do in the margins of life, but the imagining provides just enough relief to guarantee it will never actually happen.

Creative Hopelessness

Last autumn, I attended a continuing education seminar in which therapists learned therapeutic interventions by becoming the clients.

At one point, during a lengthy meditation, the instructor had us visualize a filing cabinet. He instructed us to open a drawer and to see inside the drawer a series of folders—one for each year of our life. We opened the folder corresponding to the current year and envisioned there a scene in which we are with a group of our loved ones, doing the thing we always do to hide and to keep ourselves safe in relationships.

The visualization made me sad.

Next, we put that folder away and pulled out the folder five years down the road. This time, I expected to envision a new, hopeful scenario. But instead, he gave us the exact same instructions: imagine doing what you always do.

This time, the visualization made me uncomfortable.

The exercise continued with the folders corresponding to ten, fifteen, and twenty years in the future. Each time, he gave the same instructions.

By the end of the exercise, I was angry.

And so was everyone else in the room.

People were demanding to know why, in a therapeutic exercise, he wouldn’t help us to envision change. And he explained: “By envisioning change, you would have been robbed of the experience of not changing. You need to suffer the reality of not changing and, by suffering it, you may actually be motivated to change it. Otherwise, you will just plan on changing it.”

He called it creative hopelessness.

A Hope Lived

Hope is a beautiful thing. But hopelessness is a beautiful thing, too, when it gets us angry enough to say, “No more. Enough. I have one chance at this life and I won’t spend one more day doing the same old thing.”

Recently, I heard an interview with a Jewish rabbi. He said we all waste our lives trying to avoid suffering. Instead, we should wrestle with our suffering and refuse to let it go until we have received a blessing from it.

What if the crises we experience, the oppression we live through, the restless feeling in our hearts, and the itching in our brains to do something different are the things we shouldn’t release until we have received a blessing from them?

And what if the blessing is a hope lived, instead of just a hope hoped?

Is it possible the thing we want to do in the midst of our troubles is the thing we were made to do every day?

Life isn’t about hoping; it’s about making our hopes a reality. We spending our lives hoping to live, but maybe we should spend them living our hopes.

Today, may each one of us become incarnated hope.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

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+.

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19 thoughts on “Why Sometimes Hope is Hopeless and Hopelessness is Our Best Hope

  1. What a refreshing perspective on an often misused word. So often we are encouraged to never give up “hope” without fully understanding the ramifications behind it. Hope can keep us stuck in the present or the future. We see it as a magical solution that requires no work on our part. I played the hope game for years esp in terms of happiness. When I get married I will be happy…When I get a new job I will be happy… I was always “hoping” for change and basing it on something outside of myself. But when we face our dreams and hopes, when we wrestle with it as you wrote then we can see that we do have an active role in our own life. That there is no magic wand. We are the game changers of what is important to us. Here is to a “hope lived” for all of us.

    • Karen, thank you for sharing this with us. I think so many of us will be able to relate to the “I’ll be happy when…” approach to life. We need the reminder that we’re writing our own stories!

  2. I agree. We get so stuck on hoping for the best, that we waste time we can’t get back in this. Only to feel cheated when whatever “it” is we were hoping for doesn’t happen. I’ve watched people very close to me absolutely refuse to see that they are stalling their own happiness and growth by holding onto the past disappointments as if they will avoid future pain through it. I recently made a comment about the old saying” If life gives you lemons, learn to make lemonade” only to have my optimism at working to actively live life come what may, and a received disapproving stare for being so naive. It made me so sad. My happiness does not depend on someone else’s definition or approval, I am working to make it happen regardless of what the day has brought me to face. Here’s to hoping and not getting bummed out doing so.

    • Alexandra, thank you for adding the important point that sometimes not being able to forgive the past keeps us from moving actively into the future.

  3. I’m a new reader, and I love this perspective on hope. So often, losing hope is thought of as a bad thing, but I’ve been realizing how much hope (in relationships) is holding me back. I keep on hoping something will change instead of letting go, which is keeping me from really living life.

    Great blog!

    • Welcome to UnTangled, Robin! Good juxtaposition: the often necessary process of letting go cannot happen in the midst of passive hopefulness. Thank you for that!

  4. Another essay that’s thought-provoking and very personally relevant. Hope is a game of chance. It’s risky. It can be foolish and pointless or it can be all that saves us from existential oblivion. It keeps us moving forward or it keeps us paralyzed in place. It is the fantasy of dreams and the evidence of reality. Hope is another human paradox that we can’t live without.

    • Good point, CJ, it is a paradox, as are so many essential truths about our humanity.

  5. I heard a sermon once in a Christian church on this theme. With one exception. It was the difference between real hope and just wishful thinking. That’s what you’re message seems to be to me. We all have usurped the term wishful thinking and use hope. You outline it well. It’s beautiful. I will share this with my children. Also, you interestingly use the word incarnate at the end. That made me smile. You’re message is actually a deeply Christian one. But you choose to stay under the radar. Or you’re unaware. To find the meaning and purpose of suffering is a Judeo-Christian theme. Saint Pope John II famously said once “Don’t waste your suffering!” I love that you get the message out. Regardless of the label. You are thoughtful and engaging. You are reaching the people. Awesome.

    • I love the word incarnate. Spiritual realities enfleshed. Now that’s exciting, isn’t it? Love the quote from Pope John II. Thanks!

  6. I definitely hear what you’re saying here, Kelly. I’m trying to think of a time that I had hope without living toward its fruition. I need my steps toward my better self and the better community, better world I want to be a part of.
    I’m concerned that the day I give up hope that things can be better is the day I can’t get out of bed. There’s too much yet to be done and this can’t be all there is.

    • Shel, you have a truly redemptive worldview! I’m so glad you are connecting around here. The place is a little lighter because of it.

  7. I have almost 43. At 17 I start to try for a “rare” disease without diagnosis
    When I was 33,doctor said to me that I never had anything, and they were wrong.
    The doctors wanted to stop studying. I continued studying,
    I was not going to be sitting with waiting they wanted me to live,
    I was going to continue living.I’m graduated in tourism, I’m fashion designer owner my own clothing line.
    I’m a piano teacher and also a classical guitar concert
    and I can continue….
    I traveled to several countries in South America
    I won photo contests and literature in Europe
    10 years after: “we were wrong” I can just say that I have lived and in 10 years more
    I know I’ll be even better.

    I’m sorry for my English.I read your post too early at morning

    • Alenjandr, you’re English is good enough to inspire! Thank you for sharing. It gives us all the right kind of hope!

  8. I just want to say : thank you. Reading this just made me realize what is happening to me right now : hope is holding me back because I’m afraid of what could happen if I was strong enough to live that hope. Well, it may take a little time, but this is going to change.

  9. Leslie, I enjoyed reading your comments! However, if there is one thing I can unquestionably guarantee, it is that Dr. Flanagan is not ” unaware “. I find that reading this post by Dr. Flanagan almost surreal because just this past Wednesday night, during a meeting, the leader of the meeting brought up this EXACT point! We all live with dreams, hopes and goals ( moving to a small, but very tidy and efficient cabin about 3/4 of the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, spectular views required of course! ) however, our hopes must not stand in the way of doing our very best to cherish, enjoy, and make the very most out of every single day, until and especially IF, we eventually achieve the hopes that, I would desire to believe, exist in each and every one of our hearts!

    In all honesty, I personally suffer from clinical depression. I would be ashamed to mention the percentage of my life completely wasted, waiting and praying, to even get to a place in my brain where I found something… anything… to even hope for. Thanks to a ton of effort by my Psyd. whom I believe God sent to this world with a deep and passionate need, not just a desire, but a need, to help heal Broken Souls. I thank God for her every day of my life.

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