Hope in the Midst of Uncertainty

Sharon Salzberg
April 15, 2021

It can be frightening to hope.

On the one hand, here in the United States, with vaccinations increasing and Covid deaths decreasing, we all want to feel hopeful. Hope encourages us to look forward toward a brighter future ahead.

On the other hand, all of us are scarred by the last year, and many uncertainties remain. We don’t want to have our hopes dashed yet again. We have also seen continued acts of violence against Black and Asian people in this country, casting a shadow on this otherwise hopeful time. 

So many people feel torn.

I’ve found one insight from my Buddhist tradition to be very helpful in navigating this. Buddhists tend to be a little skeptical of hope, or perhaps it’s better to say, we hold hope lightly. The reason is that hope is often about how we want the world to be. Life would be perfect if only you could get that thing, person, experience. Or if the world were better in this or that way. One can get lost in this craving, which only increases separation from the world as it is.

So, in this tradition, we try to see the world with equanimity instead of craving and fixation. Equanimity — the balance that is born of wisdom — reminds us that what is happening in front of us is not the end of the story, it is just what we can see. This, too, shall pass.

This leads to a different kind of hope, one that resides not in specific outcomes but in the way things actually are. Personally, I have found a healing sense of hope in three places that are not attached to demanding a particular outcome.

First, there is hope in remembering that, over the course of my life and even over the course of the last year, things have been bleak. Yet I am strong and there is much within me that responds well to adversity. There is hope in that confidence. 

Second, hope can be nourished by the ordinary activities that can help us sustain our energy and optimism—if we actually do them.

A few years ago, I was teaching a stress-reduction workshop with women who work in domestic violence shelters. We asked the women to write down their sources of stress in one column and what they did to handle stress in the second. Many women said they handled stress by being in nature or pursuing a hobby. Yet they could not remember the last time they had done these things.

That realization made a connection for all of us, those conducting the workshop as well as the women who worked at the shelter. We may know what could help move away from feelings of hopelessness or fear, but we often don’t do them unless we are reminded to do so by being with others in the same situation. 

Finally, there is hope in the well-known distinction between what we can and cannot control.

Before the pandemic, my friend Willow used to go swimming five days a week to reduce stress. Afterward, she’d often rest in the Jacuzzi with the other swimmers. One day, she found three people there talking about the topic that had dominated her mind during her swim: caring for elderly relatives in various states of decline.

Willow at first was too shy to join the discussion. Eventually, the water worked its magic and she felt comfortable enough to speak. “I feel terrible about him all the time,” she told her companions. “I feel like I’m doing so much and also that I’m not doing enough.”

One of the women shook her head kindly. “No, don’t think that. You’re doing exactly the right thing,” she told Willow. “You come here every day and you leave it in the water.”

The idea of leaving what we can’t control in the water speaks to my idea of hope.

Do the best you can. Live according to your values and intentions, while knowing that you may not always succeed in your aspirations. Feelings of fear or loss are part of the human condition. And when you find community with others, you know that you are doing the best you can with what you have.

The rest you can leave in the water.

Sharon Salzberg is a renowned meditation teacher who played a crucial role in bringing mindfulness to the West. Sharon is a New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including Lovingkindness, Real Happiness and Real Love.

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