Overcoming Hopelessness

by AHB on September 28

in mindset

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All month I’ve been thinking on this topic of hopelessness. The very first thing that popped into my head was a World War II story. A mother was fleeing to Germany, where her parents lived, in the cold winter of 1944. Traveling was dangerous, everywhere the sounds of explosions and ever-present hunger of a war zone. One night, as the train stopped for supplies, she left the train to get some food for her four children. When she returned the train and her children were gone! Overcoming her despair she rain from train to train, and from track to track, urgently hoping the train had not left. Finally she found the train and her children, it had been moved to a remote part of the train yard.

I mulled on this story again and again this month. It didn’t quite fit the message that someone with a chronic illness needs to hear. It occurred to me that the beauty of this particular story is that it launches into a religious sermon on hope. When despair of things ever being pleasant again clutches at your heart, weighs down your shoulders, scratches at your throat, it is knowing – or at least believing – that there is something greater, beyond ourselves, which lifts us up again.

It’s unpopular to speak of the need for religion. Even though scientists argue that it isn’t going to go away because the part of the brain responsible for the religious impulse is in the “old brain”. This old brain is also responsible for our survival instinct. As long as humans seek survival they will also seek religion. Our “new brain”, the neocortex, is bothered by this. Sometimes called “the thinking brain” or “the rational brain” humans are the only creature (known) to have a neocortex strong enough to suppress the impulses of the primal brain – where emotions, appetite, religion, survival, arise from. This is no less true of the person with a chronic illness. Our neocortex is berating us, or maybe it’s the neocortex of someone else, and we feel criticized, demeaned, patronized, etc. by the insistence that our illness is “in our heads” or that we’re “making it worse” or “faking it” or “need to try harder” or “aren’t as bad as so-and-so”. Meanwhile our old brain governs our hormonal system, immune system, autonomic system, and is sending us signals all over the place that we need healing!

How do we heal? One thing we do, which makes all the other doing possible, is we cultivate hope.

One of the best ways to cultivate hope is to cultivate faith. This isn’t just the rhetoric of religion, it is the rhetoric of one of the most successful healing communities in recorded history: Alcoholics Anonymous.

In his book, Charles Duhigg presents some of the findings from those who study the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous. Even though these researchers are reluctant to point to a belief in God they are unable to ignore the truth that belief is required. Belief that things will get better. That you can overcome. That eventually there will be a bad day and what prevents that day from being the day you lose sobriety is belief. In AA training in belief is integral: in the program, in yourself, in something greater than either the program or yourself.

What does this have to do with religion? This belief power is strengthened strongly by a group setting. Says one researcher, “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences, people might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”

In an interview Duhigg described it this way, “Researchers believe that being able to believe in yourself and your ability to withstand temptation is like a muscle. You have to practice it to get good at it. AA gives you an opportunity to practice [flexing that muscle]. There’s faith in a Higher Power; faith in fellow attendees; faith in oneself. The theory is, by the time you hit a crisis, you’ve practiced believing in yourself and it’s that much easier to stay committed to [sobriety].”

I’ve never met a person with a chronic illness who didn’t have some inkling on what actions either improved or hindered his or her health. Being able to act on that information requires hope. Hope that your efforts aren’t futile. Hope that things will get better. Hope that a relapse isn’t the beginning of the end.

Personally I find hope easiest in religion. My beliefs on prayer are particularly helpful. I pray you can find a community of hope too.

Maybe the serenity prayer, stated by those in AA, will help:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.


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