| Family First Feature |

Holding Out Hope

A desperately ill parent, an imminent divorce, irreversible infertility — sometimes we’re faced with a situation that seems hopeless. Should we ever stop davening for a miracle? Is unwavering optimism the best response? At what point do we accept the grim reality? Insight and guidance on how to respond to “worst-case scenario” situations

We Jews believe in miracles. We know that Hashem can go beyond nature and deliver salvation in the blink of an eye. That’s why we pour our hearts out in tefillah when a parent is given a grim diagnosis or a spouse gets into an accident or a married daughter is told she can never have children biologically.

But how healthy is it to focus most of one’s time and energy hoping for an unlikely outcome? How optimistic are we supposed to be, and when does that positivity become an unhealthy escape from reality?

“At the end of Abba’s life, his body began to shut down after a long, horrible fight with cancer. For the last two days before his petirah, he lay bedridden, hooked up to machines, unconscious. My mother and I sat next to his bed and wondered how we should direct our prayers.

“Should we still be davening for a refuah sheleimah? Was that even realistic considering his state? Were we supposed to ignore the doctor’s dire predictions and daven for a miracle recovery — or accept the facts and daven for my father to have a smooth departure from this world? We couldn’t figure out where to draw the line between appropriate optimism — and denial.”

It’s hard to hold out hope when a situation looks so bleak. This is especially true if the nisayon has stretched on for a long period. Sometimes, a person simply can’t muster up any more faith and decides to be “realistic” and deal with the evidence before them.

“I married the wrong person and now I’m stuck with that mistake. For the first 17 years of my marriage, I hoped and prayed that my husband would change. I did everything in my power, both practically and spiritually, to bring him around.

“Eventually I accepted that he was who he was, essentially someone I could never respect or love. By the time I realized that he wasn’t going to become the kind of partner I longed for, we already had a large family and I didn’t believe that putting my children through a divorce would be right. At this point, I no longer expect that our situation will improve. I’m just trying to make peace with the fact that I ruined my life.”

After nearly two decades of positive thinking, this woman has finally come to terms with her situation. She’s tired of hoping, burned out from trying.

But if we look closely at her complaint, we can see a clear dividing line between the facts and her interpretation of them. The facts are that this woman doesn’t like her husband’s personality; people don’t usually make huge changes in their personalities; she is committed to her marriage; and she is disappointed in the quality of her marriage.

Her interpretation of the facts is that her unhappiness is caused by her choice of marital partner (rather than, for example, events orchestrated by Hashem), that her life is ruined (rather than, for example, that she can be happy despite this loss), and that there’s no further chance of her husband becoming more lovable to her (rather than, for example, things can change at any time).

Why has she given up hope at this point? Because she decided to be “realistic.” She looked at the facts and drew her own conclusion: “If things haven’t changed yet, they’ll never change in the future.” Moreover, she is exhausted from hoping and being disappointed. She believes she’ll save herself anguish by putting hope to rest.

But she may pay a price for that.


The Cost of Realism

As Jews, we are cocreators with Hashem, partners in determining the events that occur in the world. So when we give up hope, Hashem may mirror our action. There’s a concept in Judaism that our disbelief (lack of faith) can close the door to a blessing that’s available to us — and that our belief (trust in Hashem’s omnipotence and benevolence) can open that same door. So it’s never wise for us to shut down Hashem’s power by rendering things impossible when they haven’t reached that status.

When faced with a bleak situation, we must ask ourselves if what we’re davening for falls into an “unlikely” category or an “impossible” one. For example, it’s impossible for a post-menopausal woman to have a baby naturally al pi teva. If a woman is 50 but still biologically able to reproduce, then it’s only unlikely that she’ll be able to give birth to a first child at that age. Unlikely isn’t the same as impossible. We don’t shut the door before Hashem does.

When something is categorically impossible, then it’s time to accept and mourn the loss. Before that time, however, there are many reasons to continue hoping. One is that doing so keeps the door to blessing open. Another is that we’re rewarded for eternity for exercising our faith in Hashem.

There’s also a physical reason for holding on to hope and remaining positive. Research shows that even a momentary connection with the word “no” or a short visualization of some unhappy event releases a flow of harmful chemicals into our bloodstream. This process happens whether or not the negative thought or image is “justified.”

Regular doses of negative thoughts and images (such as those arising out of chronic worry, despondent ruminations, or hopelessness) are even more harmful. They can damage key brain structures that regulate cognition, memory, interpersonal connectivity, and emotions. And they can disrupt sleep and appetite, and negatively affect resilience, health, and longevity.

On the flip side, maintaining a positive mindset increases happiness, health, longevity, and well-being. It builds resilience, boosts motivational centers in the brain, increases lifelong satisfaction, improves interpersonal relationships and social functioning, optimizes cognitive functioning, increases resistance to stress, and fends off anxiety and depression.

And all of this is true even if the positivity is baseless and there’s no proper reason for it. Irrational positive beliefs are just as life-enhancing as those grounded in theology or scientific statistics.

As such, it’s worth maintaining an optimistic attitude even if there’s only a sliver of hope. So when a parent is lying unconscious on his deathbed, keep davening for a refuah sheleimah. After the petirah, or when menopause has arrived, or after the get has been given — i.e. when the game is over — then we can accept Hashem’s decree as good, and make adjustments to our new reality.

What You Can Do

Though remaining positive and hopeful is good for us, it’s not the only thing we need to do. We must also take steps to address the challenges.

“My 42-year-old sister was stunned when she was diagnosed with cancer, especially because she’s always been into her health, eating ‘clean,’ exercising regularly, meditating, and all the rest. Despite the initial shock, Layla was optimistic that she could recover by following a protocol of positive thinking and healthy lifestyle.

“The whole family was upset — some of our relatives had already succumbed to this disease and none of us wanted to stand by and watch this happen to Layla. Her oncologist told her that she could increase her chances of survival significantly with medical treatment but Layla was having none of it. She kept repeating, ‘I have faith that Hashem can heal me just as well with vitamins as He can with strong and nasty chemicals.’

“Finally Dad got her to agree to speak to a rav who explained to her that Hashem expects us to do the best we can with the science that we currently have and that faith has to be combined with appropriate actions.”

With any challenge, we’re expected to take every step possible while simultaneously relying on Hashem’s blessing. We shouldn’t do one without the other.

That said, sometimes, there’s simply nothing more that we can do. This is when the yetzer hara usually shows up to rob us of further merit. “The doctors say it’s all over. There’s no more point in hoping for anything.” At this point, we might look to statistics, science, and practicality to resolve ourselves to a negative outcome. Many people think that by doing this they’re helping themselves adjust to the pain so the tragedy won’t hurt as much when it comes. But, in fact, hurting in advance only adds to its negative effects on us.

For instance, a father who hurts every day, “because it looks like my daughter won’t ever marry” is daily harming his emotional, physical, and spiritual health. He might counter, “But what about the disappointment I feel when a birthday passes every year and my single daughter is getting older and older, and less and less statistically likely to find her bashert? Wouldn’t it be easier on me to simply accept that she’ll likely remain single? Wouldn’t I be happier if I just made peace with the situation?”

Actually, it’s possible to make peace with a situation and still remain hopeful.

“From the time my daughter entered shidduchim until her 29th birthday, I was constantly on edge. I became depressed every time she went out and came home unhappy. I worried what would become of her if she didn’t get married soon. I felt desperate; I couldn’t sleep at night.

“After almost a decade, I finally calmed down. I’d had enough of suffering. I realized that if Hashem was making her single, then it must be good for all of us, and it could feel good too. She had a right to daily happiness, as did I. It was up to both of us to learn to relax, enjoy life, and continue to do what we were meant to do.

“At the same time, I was keenly aware that Hashem could change this situation at any moment. She’s single now, but Hashem can send my daughter her bashert tomorrow or next year or whenever the time is right. I’m still hoping, praying, and expecting her to get married, but right now, I’m freeing both her and me to be joyous today.”

We can insert “at the same time” into all the challenging nisyonos we face. As in, “Right now, they’re telling us that, in all likelihood, we’ll never have a child of our own. We’re moving forward with plans to adopt and, at the same time, we’re hoping and trusting that Hashem will change the decree.” Or, “Right now, the doctors say that ‘it’ll be any day now.’ We’re treasuring this time with Mom and taking care of all the important things, and at the same time, we’re hoping and trusting that Hashem will give us more time.”

Is it a waste to focus most of our time and energy hoping for a statistically unlikely positive outcome? The question isn’t actually a real question: It doesn’t take all of our time and energy to think a positive thought about our difficult situations. We will, in fact, be spending most of our time and energy on living our daily lives.

However, many people will ruminate as they go through the ordinary tasks of life, worrying, thinking negatively, preparing for disaster. That’s what consumes our time and energy. That’s what sickens us, weakens us, and reduces our ability to cope.

By staying positive, we can thrive in the midst of adversity. We can turn our worries into tefillah. We can think hopeful thoughts. We can live life fully by concentrating on each individual blessing in our day-to-day lives. We can focus on all the kindnesses Hashem is bestowing on us as we face this particular challenge.

Hashem has put us in a pain-filled world and given us instructions to serve Him with joy. Because doing so isn’t natural, if we manage to overcome the yetzer hara and wire our brains for happiness, we’re rewarded immensely — both in This World and the Next.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 690)

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