Times get dark for many of us. Believe me, I know. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I went through a pretty dark night of the soul for close to two years during and after my divorce from Christine. This was my crisis: I have no doubt at all that many of you are struggling with difficulties of your own, whether you speak them aloud or not.
What we need is hope. Indeed, some of us were told in seminary that hope was essentially what we were providing. In some denominations, hope comes in the form of the idea of an idyllic afterlife, that “makes up” for a lifetime of suffering. But for those of us who believe Jesus, rather than believing IN Jesus, “the Kingdom of Heaven is among us”. That means it is right here, right now. But when life sucks, that sure seems like an empty promise. Maybe you’re having trouble in your marriage, or just got blindsided by a scary medical diagnosis. Perhaps you have kids in trouble, or you’ve lost your job, or you’re caring for aging parents. These are not small problems, and they can’t be coped with by throwing platitudes at them, like, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” Stage 4 cancer or impending divorce or financial crisis isn’t small stuff, and we do each other and our faith a disservice when we decide to simplify the source of our hope.
So where does hope come from? If we don’t rely on the promise of streets paved with gold and angels playing harps in the afterlife (my version of that heavenly afterlife involves Freddie Mercury tearing up a piano, BTW), how do we find hope when all hope seems lost? If we can’t rely on this life being easy, with problems that are easily solved with a simple perspective shift, then how do we lay hold of true hope? We find hope like we find anything – we go looking for it. And here’s how.
When we are in crisis, one of the things we may be tempted to do is go into denial. And for some of us on the spiritual path, this can even seem like the “magic answer”. “If I believe it’s true, it is!” To be honest, there is a great deal of power in what we tell ourselves. And, we need to understand the principles behind the use of denials and affirmations if we are going to do that work effectively, because if we don’t, all we are in is plain old denial, and we aren’t fooling anybody – not ourselves, and not the Universe. For example, for me to simply deny the fact that Christine and I divorced would have been delusional. There were court documents, and everything. What I had to learn to deny (and it took time and effort) was that that very real fact had power over me, and I needed to affirm that there were positive steps I could take to mitigate the way it made me feel. Like say yes when the opportunity to have Murphy (my dog) showed up in my life. And saying yes when new opportunities to help or be of service came into my life (like playing Friar Lawrence in the Bards’ version of Romeo & Juliet).
Not only does the wrong kind of denial serve no purpose, it can actually make things far worse. If someone points out that there is a significant crack in the foundation of your house, denying the existence of the crack is not only foolish in the extreme, but will keep you from taking any positive action to fix the crack. Ultimately, your denial of the crack in the wall means that your house may well collapse around you. But if someone says, “Hey look, there’s a crack in the foundation!”, and the response is, “Not for long there isn’t!”, and the work to remedy the situation is undertaken, before long, there is, indeed, no crack in the foundation. But someone, at some point, has to believe that it is possible to address the problem, and begin moving. And sometimes, it is actually the act of moving from which springs the hope we need. From movement, hope buds and blossoms; being stuck strangles any fledgling hope trying to struggle into being.
In Unity, we teach that once we make a (proper) denial, we then must follow it up with an affirmation. But where do we find the affirmative, when hope itself is elusive? There are some places that are simple and very close by; others that may take some effort, but are rewarding beyond our imagination.
1. The first, easiest thing any of us can do is breathe deeply, and focus on our breath, affirming that we are in fact alive, and part of the wonderful, vibrant, divine energy in everything. Breathing is natural, and we do it all the time anyway. And it connects us to all that is.
2. Begin a gratitude list. This is a simple step, and can be done in isolation, when you don’t feel like braving the world. For those who are so down in the dumps that you may not think you have anything to be grateful for, start with Item 1: you can breathe. It may seem trite, but it isn’t. And once we get in the habit of finding things for which we are grateful, more show up.
3. Commit small random acts of kindness. Buy the coffee for the person behind you in line. Compliment someone’s outfit. Smile at a stranger. Offer a word of encouragement to an employee at a store. You never know when you will be the positive turning point in someone else’s day. My mother used to tell me, “Charles, when it looks like a woman has made an effort to make herself look good, tell her she looks good.” And these days, I’d say we can gender-neutralize that and tell everyone they look marvelous!
4. Take care of yourself. You can foster hope by making a commitment to self-care, even if it begins with only a few minutes each day. Sing a song (did you know singing as little as 10 minutes a day can boost your serotonin levels as much as an SSRI? TRUE!)
5. Look to the youth. One thing I have found to be enormously rewarding is to spend some time with our youth. Children are naturally hopeful and their enthusiasm for life is infectious. Whether I spend time with children from our church, or doing theatre with the Bards, or with the kids down at the Magic City Acceptance Center, I always leave feeling better and more hopeful.
Real life can be tough at times. And we have genuine, valid feelings about how tough it gets. But no matter how bad it seems, as long as we have hope, we can survive. And from survival, we can keep hoping, until we can thrive. And as long as we are willing to do more than spiral downward in hopelessness, or attempt the spiritual bypass of ineffective denial, we can find ways to give rise to hope in our hearts, and new light in our lives.
I am with you in this journey toward hope, dear ones. Even when I am not physically present with you, I am always just a text or an email away, wanting to share in your hopes, your joys – and your challenges. Thank you for the unbelievable privilege of traveling with me on this journey. Let’s continue to seek out the wonderful hope the Universe has for us, in expectation, with determination, and hand in hand.