The Pragmatics of Hope: What to Do When All Seems Lost

By Dolan, Yvonne | Psychotherapy Networker, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Pragmatics of Hope: What to Do When All Seems Lost


Dolan, Yvonne, Psychotherapy Networker


It was a completely full morning flight to Los Angeles. Despite the post 9-11 security procedures, our United Airlines flight was actually leaving on time. Everyone, passengers and crew alike, seemed in pretty good spirits. Then I noticed the man seated across the aisle. He was hunched over, his face in his hands, the muscles in his back shaking. He nodded almost imperceptibly when the attendant gently touched his shoulder and reminded him to fasten his seat belt in preparation for takeoff.

A few minutes into the flight, I heard the muffled sound of sobbing. After a few minutes, I leaned across the aisle and asked, "Are you okay?" He shook his head. "Is there anything I can do?" Again, he shook his head.

A little later, a flight attendant walked down the  aisle, noticed the man's sobbing, and asked, "Do you need anything?" He shook his head and cleared his throat.

"My wife and all four of my kids were killed last night in a car accident. I'm on my way back to Hawaii to make the funeral arrangements. I moved over here [the flight had originated in Chicago] for my work." His voice broke. "They were going to join me when the school term ended. "

"I don't know what to say, sir," the attendant said gently. "I'm so sorry. Are you sure there isn't anything I can get you?" Again, he shook his head. "I just need to get through the next two flights, so I can do what needs to be done. Our family is all flying over from the mainland for the funeral and I'm going to have to pick them up and make arrangements. I was up all night last night after they called me, so I'm going to try to get some sleep."

"Ring the call bell if you need anything, sir, "the attendant murmured. As she walked away, the man looked across the aisle at me. "I just need to focus on what needs to be done. That's the only way I can get through this." Then he folded the airline blanket across his chest and closed his eyes.

To most people, this man would hardly qualify as "hopeful." His misery and his story make it easy to conclude that he was, literally, without hope. Easy, but wrong. True, he undoubtedly felt hopeless, but he was not hopeless, he had not succumbed to despair. Even in the face of his catastrophe, he was taking small, tentative but active, steps back toward the realm of life. By focusing on what he needed to do in the immediate future--get some sleep, pick up his relatives, and begin making arrangements--he was assuming a future, a time for which plans needed to be made, people contacted, tasks met, even if, for now, that future encompassed only the next few hours or days. Despite his acute grief, he was saying, in effect, "this is impossible, but I'll find a way to get through it."

Making his plans didn't change what had happened or his feelings about it, but it gave him some small measure of control in otherwise uncontrollable circumstances. It also provided him with a rough map for what would undoubtedly be a brutal journey through a wilderness of suffering. For the time being, he was alive and coping; he hadn't been defeated by despair, and that in itself was a harbinger of hope to come.

There's Hope in Activity

As therapists, we've been trained to think that we should focus primarily on emotions. We often elicit negative emotions, believing that they must be purged before there'll be room for hope and other positive emotions. We're particularly anxious to assuage trauma survivors, whose desperate, unbearable pain seems to demand immediate relief. We frequently assume that all clients must feel hopeful and believe that life is meaningful before they'll make much progress in therapy or in life.

But the fact is that in the wake of catastrophe, it's often impossible to summon up the least glimmer of hope or faith or sense of life's meaning. How, for example, can you suggest to someone whose child has been shot in a schoolyard, who has lost a home to a hurricane, or who's been raped as a child by family members that there's hope for the future, that they'll feel "better" someday? …

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