Being hopeful in hard times is a sign not of delusion, but of health
Hopefulness, even when illogical, is a healthy state of mind.
In his piece “An Essay on Man” (1732), poet Alexander Pope crafted the famous phrase, “hope springs eternal.” We still like it all these centuries later because it sums up the healthy human spirit. Human beings “hope against hope” in dire situations, when there is no apparent reason to, and no evidence that salvation might arise. But we Jews have always engaged in this sort of belief. Our hope in G-d is part of our national identity and the force that fuels our prayers for Redemption.
I watched all my friends become pregnant with their first child and then their second and third while my own situation never changed. While they were making bar mitzvahs and then weddings, I was still waiting — and hoping — to hold a baby of my own in my arms.
Those close to me tried to discourage me, claiming they didn’t want to see me hurting so much. “Wouldn’t it be better,” they argued, “to just be happy and concentrate on the many blessings you have?” It was hard for me to stay silent when they’d say that. Who were they to rob me of my hope? It came from inside my heart; it kept me going all those years.
They might have been shocked when I finally did have a child at age 46, but I wasn’t. My baby developed in a womb of hope.
When the Brain Says “No”
The brain is a fact-collecting and analyzing machine. However, the heart-brain makes different calculations and, when healthy, can find reason to be hopeful despite the absence of “facts.” Even in the face of a doctor’s dire prognosis or a lack of patient responsiveness, a person can remain hopeful that Hashem will step in with a refuah. And of course, this happens often enough, it’s a “fact” there are always exceptions to the rules, surprising breakthroughs, and even miracles.
However, many people feel this heart-brain is a foolish organ whose goal it is to “trick” weak people into a delusional state of well-being. These stick-to-the-facts people feel their superior intelligence and strength removes the necessity for such childish escape tactics. “You have to face it — life is hard, and things don’t always work out.”
Although that’s true, it’s got nothing to do with hopefulness. In fact, feeling hopeful despite any logical reason to feel that way is an indication of health. “Hope springs eternal” except in those who are emotionally ill.
Everyone tells me to remain hopeful, but what do they know? They’re not living my life. And nothing — I mean, nothing — has ever worked out for me. I had trouble in school, I have a horrible job that will never support me, I live alone while all my friends have all gotten married, my health is poor... what exactly do I have to be hopeful about?
Anything I’ve ever wanted has failed to materialize, so why should I expect anything good to happen? I’m doomed to suffer.
This poor woman’s situation sounds so bad, one might be excused for thinking despair is logical. Based on facts alone, hopelessness makes sense for all of us at different times — it seems irrational to hope that the marriage will improve or that our child will find his way back. And yet, if we’re healthy, we will experience hopefulness despite a lack of evidence and intellectual reasoning. When we don’t feel that hopefulness, we need to make a medical appointment.
Hopelessness is an Illness
Hopelessness is part of the diagnostic criteria for “major depressive episode.” When we’re in that mindset, it’s not because we’ve cleverly figured out that all the arrows are pointing down. It’s because there’s something broken within our emotional system that needs to be repaired.
We don’t have to prove to ourselves or anyone else that our situation is so awful that there is no point in hoping — because hope requires no justification. It simply flows out of a system that’s working.
Single people in their seventies who are still anticipating finding their bashert are not delusional — they’re actually healthy. However, someone in her forties who has despaired of ever finding a partner may feel she is being realistic, whereas she might be suffering from broken heart syndrome (emotional injury/illness). Instead of wasting time explaining to oneself or others why hopelessness is appropriate, it is far more appropriate for any hopeless person to seek professional intervention.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 803)
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