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Hope can be a hard thing to grasp, especially when you’re dealing with crippling anxiety and depression. The more you battle your illness, the more you’ll learn that hope is key to your survival. You must find some hope for depression that you can tap into when things are at their darkest.
The other day I had the opportunity to stop by The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church. An old friend was putting together a workshop on faith and mental illness and asked me to take part in the discussion. After much prayer and support from friends, I was able to overcome my depression/anxiety long enough to make it out of the house and to the conference.
I knew the concept of hope was among the topics on the agenda. I was interested to hear what others found as their source of hope and strength.
Hope isn’t one thing. Hope is subjective. We rarely understand that. We think our hope is the only real hope, and so we dismiss the hope in others. “If it’s not the hope I know then it must be false hope.” Atheists think Christians can only find hope in religion and cynics think hope is made up of the lies we tell ourselves. We have to be careful because, often, that poor attitude can erode a person’s sense of hope. When we do that, we essentially try to make them just as hopeless as we are.
That term, false hope, comes up far too often. Is any hope really false hope if it gets the job done? We underestimate hope, and we don’t give it the respect it deserves. Hope is the sunshine over the valley of our lives. Yes, we’re in the shadows now but as long as there is sunlight we can keep moving toward it. That sunshine means the darkness isn’t forever, and that’s our hope.
The morning of the workshop I went over the questions with Kristen on our morning breakfast date. Kristen is a mental illness survivor, but she’s also the caretaker for a mental illness survivor (me) and she is someone who is directly affected by suicide. Her wisdom, like all real wisdom, is earned through hard knocks, and I wanted to know what hope meant to such a strong woman.
Kristen gets her hope from believing that our present circumstances are not forever. She believes that, though I may not be 100% healed, I will be light years ahead of where I am now. She believes that, eventually, we’ll go on to have a happy, productive and fulfilling life. Now, I don’t share that belief with her. I don’t necessarily think that it won’t go that way. In fact, I want her hope to be my hope. Her hope is awesome because it’s a lot more optimistic than mine. Is her hope false? Of course not. Even if that never comes true, it wouldn’t be false hope. That’s what drives this woman, and hope is all about finding what drives you.
During the workshop, I listened as others explained what hope meant to them. Not surprising, many found hope from their faith in God. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, if you’re one of those people who would answer ‘God’ to the hope question then good for you. But I encourage you, to look within yourself for something a bit more. Don’t freak out Christians, I’ll explain.
There is nothing wrong with God being your source of hope. Guess what, he’s my source of hope too. He’s the source of all hope (Psalm 62:5). Whether you choose to believe in him or not, God’s the source of your hope.
For my explanation let’s call the hope we get from God, ‘True Hope.’ He’s the ultimate source.
But each of us is different. We’re complex and nuanced and, on top of that, we all have different experiences. These things are used to shape us, and it also helps us by way of giving each of us a unique flavor of hope when we need it. We’ll call that unique personal hope the “Day-to-Day Hope.”
Kristen’s sense of hope is different from mine (more on mine later). Though God is the source of hope for both of us, hope takes a different form. As does yours. God (True Hope) gives each of us our personal kind of hope (Day-to-Day Hope) to help us get through what we’re going through (Isaiah 40:29). That’s why it’s important not to dismiss hope in others. Let them have it if they need it.
I encourage people to dig deep within themselves and explore the source of their hope. Understanding the intricacies with which God made you is a step toward a) appreciating your creator’s sense of detail, and b) it allows you to tap into it whenever you need some extra hope.
Look, nobody is going to tap into your source of hope for you. You are the only person who can do that. Other people can present you with options or ideas of things that may give you hope but whether or not you take them and embrace them is completely up to you.
I have a friend who is going through the darkest time in his life. Physical illness has given way to mental illness, and he’s nearing closer to the ledge. Each day I try to prop him back up on the matt only to have him fall back down. Why? Because he refuses to tap into his hope. He’s hurting right now, and he won’t let himself see options and opportunities. All he sees is the darkness, and he refuses to search even for some sunlight.
Everyone can point you in the direction of the sun but unless you open your eyes, you’ll never see it. For some of us we’re too angry at our circumstances to open our eyes. For others, like my friend, we are still too shocked and overwhelmed by the sudden pain of our situation to even consider opening our eyes.
I want to encourage you to search for your sunlight. Open your eyes and start looking. Look within yourself, look to God, look all over. Find what gives you hope. If people are telling you things to be hopeful about, maybe you should start to consider them. Maybe you should warm up to the fact that, though your valley is dark, there may be some sunshine around.
Okay, so you finally get that you need to start looking for some hope if you’re going to survive this. Where do you start? Well, it takes time and effort. I know, when we have depression we tend to get lazy and procrastinate. Don’t put this off. Remember, nobody’s responsible for your sunshine but you. So get to work.
First, think back to the moments when you are most optimistic and write those down. Just grab a blank piece of paper and start writing. It doesn’t need to make sense yet.
A word of caution here, be careful who you ask. Not everyone’s opinion deserves space in your brain. You’re going to want to ask people who know you better than you know yourself and people who love you and care about you. Ask them if they’ve ever experienced you feeling hopeful or optimistic. Ask them if they know what gets you excited or perks your ears up. They may mean nothing to you right now. That’s fine, just write them down somewhere safe.
If you’re seeing a counselor or therapist float the question by them. Ask them if they’ve noticed anything that has made you appear more hopeful or optimistic. Write that down.
Ask God. I mentioned above that he is the source of all hope so go ahead and ask him while you’re asking everyone else close to you. Say, “God, I need hope right now. Can you show me where to find some?” Believe me or not. It’s up to you. But God’s answered that prayer in my life on more than one occasion. What do you have to lose?
Meditation isn’t just for martial artists or unbathed hippies. Meditation can be a powerful way to explore any concept. You don’t need anything to try this. Just sit comfortably in a quiet place. Close your eyes or softly focus on a point in the room. Let yourself go into a daze a bit. Then start thinking of the word hope. How its spelled. What the word looks like. Then after awhile start to think about things that you associate with being hopeful. Once you’re done, write what you’ve experienced down.
It’s going to be a real search. Some hope is easy to find, and others take some effort. But trust the process. Search for that sunlight. However you can.
Hope is the fuel that carries you through this crap so once you find some hope you should exploit it and squeeze every bit out of it. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it later.
To accomplish this, I want to introduce you to the concept of optimizing. Optimizing is simply carefully reviewing your activities to see what works. You then do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
In my non-Sad Runner life, I help organizations grow fast by optimizing their marketing efforts. I compile the things they do to promote the business. I then track what works and what doesn’t. Finally, I build systems to help us do more of what works and then get us to spend less time and money on what doesn’t.
We can take this same approach to our depression. Today specifically, let’s talk about optimizing hope.
To start, we’re always going to ask ourselves, “What’s working?” Now, depressed people, you’re probably going to say, “nothing’s working.” Remember nobody’s going to do this for you so stick with me here. The nothing attitude doesn’t help you.
Once you write down some ideas of hope makers, next it’s time to try them out. You have to test them to see if these activities, ideas, or people give you any additional hope. Ask yourself, “What on this list is working?”
Circle the ones that work and cross out the ones that don’t. If you have none to circle, then it’s time to go back to searching. Nobody said this was easy. By the way, always be searching. You never know when something that gives you hope will dry up, and you’ll need something new.
Okay, let’s assume you have a couple things you think give you at least an ounce of hope. It’s time to ask the next question. Ask yourself, “How can I do more of this?” Your goal is to find sneaky ways to inject this hope into your daily life.
So take one of your hope makers and start to brainstorm ways to get more of it. If being around an encouraging person gives you hope then force yourself to schedule more coffees with that person. If a certain author always lifts you up then make sure you always have their latest book within reach so you can read it in line somewhere or on a break. You have to be aggressive in your search for ways to make hope happen in your daily life.
My wife knows that one thing that encourages her is to spend more time worshipping God. It always lifts her mood and gives her more hope. Our busy life and my depression make it hard to get to church a lot. Even more, Kristen knows that just worshipping on Sunday isn’t going to do it for her. She needs more hope during the week as well.
So now, she listens to worship music when she gets ready for work in the morning. At 7 am she’s in the bathroom with music playing on her phone while she does her hair. She found a hope maker and figured out how to work more of it into her life.
We take hope for granted. We expect it to be there when we need it, but we don’t nurture it and we certainly don’t protect it. Once you’ve identified your hope makers you have to fight to keep them safe. And you have to feed them, so they grow. Kristen makes an effort by listening to worship and forcing herself to make time to read scripture because she now knows what fuels her hope. She works hard to make that part of her life because she knows that she’s going to need that hope someday soon, so she’s working, building it up now.
I’ve said that everyone’s hope is different, but I never mentioned mine. I had to ask Kristen what she thought my main hope was, and she reminded me that’s it’s my belief that none of this is going to waste. You see, for me, the only thing more painful than the pain I feel is if this pain goes to waste. I need to trust that this is going toward something good. I have to believe that I can use this to help others. That way my pain isn’t for nothing.
Sad Runner is very much a hope building project for me. It’s a way for me to use this pain for good, to serve others and help them overcome their struggles. Writing this stuff is hard work. Developing a successful blog is tough enough but daily trying to tap into my personal depression adds a whole other level of complex pain to the process. But I still do it. I work on it because it’s what gives me hope.
I believe that I can use my pain to help others. In fact, I refuse to let my pain go to waste. Because I know this project nurtures my hope, and others have said that this site gives them hope too, I know it’s important that I keep going. We all have to keep going. We have to keep fighting. We have to keep moving forward.
Start today, make a list of things that give you hope or at least a small sense of optimism. Start there. Nurture those things and help them grow. Protect them and keep them close to you. Eventually, you will see that hope grow and start to take shape. I know it will.