The Hard Work of Hope


For several years now I’ve skipped, or seriously toned down, my activities on December 31st and have gone out to greet the new year in the morning instead. I like to drive out to the ocean and stand in the cold wet air and breathe in all that a new year has to offer. I like to get somewhere so quiet that the silence feels like a blanket I can wrap around my shoulders. The world feels clearer, simpler, more manageable in those early hours.

I couldn’t go to the ocean this year. There was a massive storm just before Christmas with winds so strong they threw boats into the pier breaking a huge section out of the one hundred year old structure. Even now the pier and the beach are all fenced off. You can’t get anywhere near it. So this year I went to Cultus Lake. It’s a beautiful lake ringed by mountains and tall, old trees. I found an empty section of beach and stood there with a coffee and book and a candle. I stood on the shore and stared out at the mountains and tried desperately to hope.

I wanted to greet the new year with joy and celebration and dancing, but instead hope felt like an insurmountable obstacle. How could I get there, from here? Even the idea of hope felt a bit ridiculous. I’m starting to realize that the beginning of a new year is a tender time for me. I want to reach out toward dreams and ideas and big plans and what ifs but, instead, I fall into the familiar tracks of scarcity thinking and fear. I start catastrophizing and making escape plans for disasters that have not happened. Unsurprisingly, this does not go well.

As I stood on the shore of the lake that cold January day I was reminded of a section in the middle of Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, where she talks about foreboding joy. Brené defines foreboding joy this way:

It’s as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we’re setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect us from pain.

Hearing that felt like Brené had taken a microscope and was staring directly into my brain. This is exactly what I do. When faced with a change or a choice I think about the very worst possible outcome and then soak myself in just how awful it would feel if the things I imagined came true. It’s not a healthy practice.

Hope, for me, is often a fight. I have to physically yank my thoughts out of their tragedy tailspin and pull them toward the light. It’s hard work. I am not someone who enjoys change and I think this is largely because I often view the future with fear. I assume that things will get worse, that I will have less somehow and I’ll have to find a way to make it work. I don’t know why my brain is so quick to step into the darkness. Maybe it’s just practice?

I remember so clearly what it felt like when I learned I was being downsized and would need to find another job. I loved my job and I was good at it. I had a great team and a wealth of experience and it felt like someone had sucked all of the air out of the room. I was afraid. I was afraid of so many things. At times, that fear was completely paralyzing and kept me from doing the things that would actually help.

When I tried to picture what came next all I saw was the dark. I had no idea that what was waiting for me was really, really good. I wish I could have seen this coming. I wish my imagination could spin bright happy tales as easily as it spins out the dark and scary ones. I am hopeful that this can improve with practice. Hope is hard work but maybe hope is also like other kinds of hard work–maybe the body can learn to do it better with time and repetition? Perhaps logic can win out over frazzled emotions?

I try to remind myself of what I know for sure. I have always come through the situations I’ve found myself in. There has always been a way forward in the end, even if some of those roads went backwards first. I try to count the times I was brave and make myself pay attention to them.  It is so much easier to recount the failures in vivid detail, but I am getting better at telling my own hero stories to myself. I am far from helpless even if there are days when my brain lies and tells me that I am.

I don’t have a word for 2019 but I hope that this year I can practice whatever the opposite of foreboding joy is. In the dark days, and there will be dark days, I want to remind myself that it won’t always be dark. One thing I learned in 2018 is that joy sneaks up on you. I want to remember that going into this new year. Sometimes the road is so much longer than you think it will be and then you turn an ordinary corner and suddenly, there’s joy standing right in the middle of the road ready to greet you. If I can hold on to that thought, there’s a lot of hope in that.