This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.
“All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know” ~ WS Merwin
Optimism versus Hope
The words ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’ may seem to be synonyms, but in a blog Doug Muder on his The Weekly Sift website made an elegant distinction between the two.
“Hope is not optimism…
- Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Optimists expect the future to turn out well; pessimists expect it to turn out badly.
- Hope and its opposite (despair) are attitudes towards the present. Hope holds that efforts to make life better are worthwhile, while despair asserts their pointlessness. Hope says, “Let’s try it” and despair answers “Don’t bother.”
I believe cultivating both – attending to our present and sense of the future – to be vital.
Grief can colour your expectations of the future, but how, exactly, will depend on the way you experience grief. People for whom an absence of something that brought complications into their lives may experience a sense of lightness or relief. People who are dealing with the loss of something beloved may dread going through life with it no longer there. The disappearance of something that has become familiar and central to us can be disorientating or stressful; at my mother’s funeral, my father used the word “trepidation” to describe how he felt at facing a future without his companion of so many decades.
Emotions aside, grief can affect how clearly we envisage a future life, or how concrete we feel our plans can be. It can take time to get used to a radical sense of absence, and then make adjustments to a sense of self and its relatedness to the people and situations that still exist as well as anything new that arises. Some people may have long-held dreams or wish lists that they have been dying to try but for which they never had time; the death of one way of life may actually allow them to do this. But, for other people, looking into the future may be like looking along a path that disappears into a fog.
The pandemic has disrupted what we had all been calling normal. What the ‘new normal’ will turn out to be is not apparent yet. The loss of a job or vocation or sector can knock anyone’s sense of optimism, especially if that is experienced against the background of a pandemic that is challenging the economy and just about every societal norm you could name. The challenge is to develop a sense of potential in the future at a time when that future is hard to see.
“The future is unknowable since to know the future is to change it.” ~ from episode 23 of ‘Monkey’.
The future is liminal
Optimism, at its healthiest, allows us to develop expectations of good things happening in the future. Optimism is like looking at a map of a path and seeing that the landscape it leads you through is coloured green.
Hope is what we employ when the fog descends onto the path, where we can’t see what lies ahead. Hope is what we need to keep us going, waiting for the fog to lift and trusting that, when it does, we will like what we see. Optimism points us towards opportunity; hope demands that we have faith that there are possibilities.
Hope takes us off the edge of the map. Here be dragons, but where dragons are there is also gold, magic, wisdom, and adventure. The artists reading this will know that it is places of liminality – places of threshold and transition – that afford rich experience and ideas. This future space that many of us can’t see properly holds the unexpected; there is nothing to dictate that every single unexpected thing will necessarily turn out to be bad.
Are you struggling to find hope or optimism right now?
The poet WS Merwin said that “Our hope is not a thing in the future; it’s a way of seeing the present.” If you feel that you have no hope for the future, it’s not because the future literally does hold no hope. It’s because your present is so hard that it has, temporarily, drained the little pool of spiritual or psychological energy you draw on to build a sense of hope. I say ‘temporarily’ because many people find that, as they travel through various stages of grief, their sense of hope may come and go. As I wrote in an earlier note, grief never leaves you, but you do rebuild the capacity to experience a new life – and joy in that new life – after a while.
But I also say ‘temporarily’ as a reminder that a lack of hope should only burden you for a short duration. If it doesn’t – if it seems to be a constant – then that may be a sign that you are slipping into depression, which is not the same as grief. If this is the case, please go and seek professional help. Please. You do not have to do this alone. You have not been specifically marked out by the universe to live abandoned in the dark. No one has.
“Who shall conquer the world and the world of death with its many gods? Who shall discover the shining way? ‘You shall,’ said the Buddha.” ~ from episode 22 of ‘Monkey’.
How do you locate a sense of optimism in a frazzled brain that is dealing with a world that is in a state of flux? If optimism is based on a set of expectations about what feasibly could happen, then I guess you could argue the same about pessimism. And we are living in an age where things like COVID-19, climate change, and increasing inequity may indicate that we should, going on current form, be pessimistic.
I would be the first to argue against propagating toxic positivity, the irritating and downright unhealthy practice of refusing to acknowledge or articulate negative things. Actually, I was partly inspired to write these notes by enormous anger and disgust at how certain types of workers have been excluded from the JobKeeper wage subsidy or made redundant. Being realistic about the things that are unfair, unhelpful, or unhealthy is an important step in tackling them. The process of grieving can help us to face up to uncomfortable truths.
But this realism is not the same as pessimism, or optimism, for that matter. Pessimism and optimism are attitudes – stances – that we choose to adopt to prepare us for what may happen in the future.
If you have been bludgeoned by difficult circumstances it can feel like it’s impossible to ‘choose’ anything but pessimism. Repeated disappointments, sleepless nights, being surrounded by distraught colleagues on the cusp of being made redundant, the pressure to find rent money, hearing political or workplace policy that makes you angry, hearing bad policy being given good press… all of this can crowd in on you and overwhelm your psychic defences. It is all too easy to miss the tiny specks of evidence that point to the possibility of alternative and more positive futures.
A distressed brain can have a febrile imagination. A distressed imagination can fire out virtual catastrophes at the rate of knots, and these can feel overwhelming.
In the article That discomfort you’re feeling is grief, grief expert David Kessler provides some good tips on managing anxiety, including this one:
“Our mind begins to show us images… We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image.”
In other words, put that busy imagination to work: for every catastrophe it shows you, make it design a near miss, a spectacular recovery, or a complete triumph. The important thing is not to make this an exercise in denial – it’s important to acknowledge risk – but in identifying potential and making a choice. Remind yourself that there are no guarantees that the worst will happen, and there is equal potential for great things to come about.
No one knows how the ‘new normal’ will look and function. Our world does face massive challenges and huge risks. But it doesn’t follow that in that new normal there is also not a place for you to realise your potential to be safe, to be happy.
In a video posted online as a response to Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, US Senator Elizabeth Warren at one stage says “Hope is not given to us – it is created by us;” both a call to arms and a note of reassurance. On the same day as I watched this, I read Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, referring to restorative justice activist Mariame Kaba’s idea that hope is a discipline. And I think that the same could be said of optimism – as I said above, it’s a stance you choose to take.
So how does this sit with grieving? It can be hard if your grief takes the form of devastating sadness, regret, resentfulness, numbness, or feeling bereft. But consider this: grief can also help you to find hope. Grieving is a process of adjustment. Each emotion or reaction, even the awful ones, are part of you shifting and recalibrating yourself to deal with and, if you want, to learn from the absence of something. Grief changes you. It can give you the opportunity to grow. And that is something to be hopeful about.
Rain Light by WS Merwin
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.
These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.
This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.