It has taken me most of my life to realize that helpless and hopeless are not the same thing—to realize that the thought that I feel helpless and actually being helpless are very different. For me, feeling helpless simply means I don't know how to help myself in that moment. Hopelessness is when you think you can't be helped, or you think you don't deserve to be helped.
And that is a very scary place to be.
People who have never suffered from depression or never had to struggle through adversity may not understand what I'm talking about. And if that's the case, I'm truly happy for you. Because my greatest wish for everyone is that they can live a life without feeling hopeless.
I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I have all the answers to suddenly make your life a perfect package with a bow on top, because I don't. I regularly find myself feeling helpless, especially when I don't know how to help myself go beyond something that is worrying me. However, I finally came to realize that when things start to get very difficult for me, the feelings of helplessness descend into hopelessness when I started to believe that things will never change—that I'd always feel a certain way or I'd always be in the same situation.
As we've already written about a lot in our blog, change is one of life's constants. If we can count on nothing else, we can count on change. And this realization is one of the things that has helped me stop a downward spiral toward despair when things feel bad. I know now that things will change. It might not always be a big change. But just as in walking, taking one step, even a small one, moves you forward. If you add up all your steps, you will realize you've traveled a far distance.
Lao Tzu said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." I think about this often as I remind myself that I need to keep myself moving forward, physically and mentally. I remind myself that I can't predict the future, so I don't know what life will be like in a day or a week or a year.
My dad, a Buddhist teacher, has been working with and counseling prisoners at Folsom Prison. These are men with violent pasts. They're not ever getting out of jail. I asked him, "How do these men not give up? What keeps them living?" He thought about my question for a moment and then replied, "They have lives. They don't have lives that you and I would recognize, but they do live. They have friends. They have a social structure. It's what they live for." Some of the prisoners he works with have learned to meditate. They have learned to find peace and feel joy within themselves. They continue moving forward in the ways they can.
My mother often says, "This is the life we've been given." I've truly taken that one to heart. My life is the life I have. I spent many years being angry that my life wasn't the way I thought it would be, or should be. I felt dissatisfied that I couldn't make my life be a certain way. And every time I found myself consumed by those thoughts, they would lead me to feeling hopeless.
But if I simply acknowledge the life I have and take steps toward living the life I want—then there is hope. And, yes, sometimes feelings of helplessness arise. But that's ok. It's ok to feel helpless. And it's okay to ask for help. And it's ok to allow yourself to be helped. And then, once again, you can start taking those steps forward. If I look back on the path my life has taken, there are so many things I'm grateful for. So many things I cherish that I never could have known were possible.
Questions for my mom:
Have you ever had a time in your life when you felt hopeless?
I don't think you can get to be my age without feeling hopeless at one time or another. I think it happens to everyone. But it's rare for me these days. I liked what you said about helplessness and hopelessness being different. You also mentioned feelings of not deserving to be helped, and I'm really fortunate in that way because I've never felt that I don't deserve to be helped. I don't get down on myself in that way. But I can feel as if I "can't" be helped and that does lead to feeling hopeless.
The reason I rarely feel hopeless anymore is that, over the years, I've changed my perspective on life. I don't expect life to be rosy all the time. I don't expect to always like everything that's happening in my personal life or in the world. I know this means that I've lowered my expectations, which some people may think is a negative approach, but, for me, it depends on the context. In the context of trying to diminish being susceptible to feelings of hopelessness, I think it's skillful to lower expectations—to know you're not always going to get what you want.
Do you recall what action you took to help yourself move forward past those negative thoughts?
In addition to that change of perspective, I have a couple of tools for dealing with feelings of hopelessness. One is that I treat hopelessness as an arising and passing mental state or feeling or emotion—whichever word you like. Like you said in your essay, change is universal, so I treat hopelessness as a temporary visitor to the mind.
One of the ways I do this is to describe it to myself in a way that makes the feeling not a permanent part of who I am. So I may say, "Hopelessness is present today." I know that sounds awkward, but it's very different from saying, "I am a hopeless-filled person." When you dis-identify with the emotion in the way I've described, you lessen its hold of you and that makes it pass away more quickly. When you're able to see it as a temporary mental state, it's easier to wait it out.
The second thing I do to keep feelings of hopelessness at bay comes from a Zen saying: keep a don't-know mind. Readers of my books will be very familiar with this idea! "Don't-Know Mind" has been tremendously freeing to me, including freeing me from hopelessness. After all, none of us knows what will happen in the future. We don't even know what tomorrow will bring, personally or globally. It could be an unexpected positive change.
So rather than worrying about the future, which can lead to hopelessness, my advice is to acknowledge when you're feeling hopeless, but to also recognize that you don't know how things will play out. Maybe something wonderful will happen! I know it's a cliché, but tomorrow is a new day. We have a friend who fell in love at 71. Neither he nor the woman—who's about the same age— thought there'd be another love for them in their lives. But there it is. You just never know.
But I do want to add something important. If someone who is reading this piece has been feeling hopeless for weeks on end—maybe 2-3 weeks straight—then they need to seek help. Reach out to a friend or get help from a therapist. Feeling hopeless for that long is a sign of clinical depression. A person can be depressed and not feel hopeless, but the two often go hand-in-hand. You should always keep an eye on how long a dark mood sticks around and, if it's a few weeks, then take some steps toward getting help for yourself.
I would say that all things being equal, yes. But to me, living with chronic illness in a country like the U.S., in most cases can't be compared to a parent who is living in a dirt-bottomed tent in a refugee camp with her three kids with hardly any food, no sanitation, and no idea how or when she's going to get out of there. Hopelessness in that situation is truly tragic.
Back to your question of whether people who are chronically ill are more likely to feel hopeless. If we are comparing healthy people to chronically ill people with all other factors generally being equal, then, yes, I do think that being chronically ill can lead to feelings of hopelessness. The reason is that people who are chronically ill (which includes chronic pain) feel powerless to do anything to improve their medical situation.
Of course, there are healthy people who can feel powerless too. Maybe they're in a bad relationship or they're unhappy at work and have no alternatives. That's truly sad. For the most part, though, healthy people can find a way to change their situation because they have some control over it. By contrast, people who are chronically ill can't control what's happening to them physically and/or mentally, and they often feel there are no alternatives for them in life. Feeling that way can give rise to feeling hopeless. I know it happens because chronically ill people write to me about it all the time.