Maintaining Hope in Hard Times


It can be hard to have hope these days.

On the one hand, we all want to feel hopeful. Hope encourages us to look forward confidently, and we may expect hope itself is necessary for us to get what we desire. Often when someone succeeds despite the odds, admirers say, “She never gave up hope.” In this way, hope is also a refuge, akin to having faith.

On the other hand, we live in such difficult times that I have heard from many people that they feel almost frightened or foolish to hope that things in their world will be better. They, and I, have been alarmed and frightened by how much deceit and duplicity we see around us. It has been very hard not to get lost in the chaos and it takes strength not to dwell there.

So many people feel torn. Remaining hopeful feels like a useless place to put their energy, but they don’t want to be hopeless either.

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. As if life would be perfect if only you could get that thing, person, or 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 getting what we want, but in the way things actually are in this universe.

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, things have been bleak before, even bleaker than they are now. I am strong, and there is much within me that responds well to adversity. There is hope in that confidence.

Second, in order to work for change — in our personal lives or in the world — we need to find the ordinary things that can help us sustain our energy and optimism.

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.

We are all stressed at times, all fearful and sometimes despondent. And even if we know what could help move away from these hopeless feelings, we often don’t do them unless we are reminded to do so by being with others in the same situation.

Finally, I find hope in my sense of community and the experience of bearing the tough times with others.

My friend Willow recently made a commitment to swim five times a week to reduce stress. It’s still a struggle, but often what draws her there is the big Jacuzzi right next to the pool. It can hold twenty people but there are usually only two or three lazing there, letting the underwater jets massage away their aches.

Last week, her swim didn’t go very well. She was distracted and didn’t feel much joy being in the pool. Then, in the Jacuzzi, she found three people talking about the exact topic that dominated her mind during her swim: her aging dad. All of the others were 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 said. “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 despair and inadequacy are part of the human condition. And when you find community with others, you know you are doing the best you can with what you have.

The rest you can leave in the water.

A towering figure in the meditation world, Sharon Salzberg is a prominent teacher & New York Times best-selling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing mindfulness to the West. Sharon is the author of nine books, including Lovingkindness, Real Happiness and the most recent Real Love.

Sharon Salzberg