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Hope is the sweet dove of peace
Whose wings restart My heart when it falters.
Hope is in short supply these days. We look around and don't necessarily see a lot to be hopeful about. But the truth is, each of us carries within our hearts the seeds of enduring hope. Growing hope is an inside job. And like anything worth cultivating-happiness, success, peace of mind, a loving family-hope requires conscious effort and committed action to be able to grow deep roots in our heart and soul. Even the most resilient seeds can fail to sprout when buried in the harsh soil of pain and fear. But I've found that with love, intention, and a little help, we all have the ability to create a fertile field within us where hope can grow, flourish, and eventually spread outward to inspire and uplift others. Happiness, serenity, and circumstances can help bolster our feelings of hope, but they don't create them. We do. I can just hear some of you murmuring, "Bummer."
I know, because I fell into a self-dug pit of hopelessness when first contemplating writing this book. Nagging internal voices filled me with doubt: "What a huge and important subject. What can I possibly say that would help?" "No matter what I write, it will be a mere drop in the bucket...."
Stymied, I began consciously courting hope by practicing many of the ideas, attitudes, and activities I planned to incorporate into the book if and when I ever managed to start writing it! To get myself started, each morning I would look in the mirror and assure myself, "You can do this. You don't have to go it alone. ... Relax and let whatever needs to be said come through." I also devised a simple ritual to do before sitting down at the computer. I invited my angels and muse to be with me and asked for my little self to get out of the way so that my higher Self-or God's energy-could flow through me to be of service.
Thankfully, hope eventually took root, and inspiration and excitement began to replace fear and lack of confidence. Probably the greatest boost I received came from a Gandhi quote I "accidentally" found:
Almost anything you do seems insignificant. It is very important that you do it. You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
And that's it, in a nutshell, isn't it? We need to create, within ourselves, the changes for which we yearn.
If we want a world filled with hope and kindness, a world lopsided toward love, we need to cultivate and nurture those qualities within ourselves.
Why the Erosion of Hope?
Those who are animated by hope can perform what would seem impossibilities to those who are under the depressing influence of fear. -RACHEL ROBARDS JACKSON
So many people these days have the feeling that an apocalypse of one sort or another is marching up their front steps, about to knock on-or in-their door. It's tempting to belabor the difficulties in our world (personal and collective) and to berate those we think are responsible, including ourselves. However, I am convinced that both of these actions are detrimental to our sense of well-being and inevitably lead to a more profound loss of hope. No, instead of dwelling on the negative, we have to work at accentuating the positive.
That doesn't mean we can totally eliminate what we experience as negative. Of course we can't. But before we can begin to emphasize the positive we have to better understand what's driving the erosion of hope and the growth of despair. I see four factors:
1. Personal Pain
Although some of us retain our sense of hope no matter what happens and seem to glide through personal setbacks and tragedies as gracefully as professional ice skaters, many of us find personal pain depressing, even debilitating. If you fall in the latter category, please know that psychology and medical science are proving that becoming depressed by pain isn't a sign of flawed character or wimpy constitution; it is a matter of undisciplined thought processes, aggravated by variations in our fundamental chemical and physical makeup. On the flip side, the sister discovery is that we can alter our natural inclinations and learn coping and thriving skills that can lead to peace of mind, personal fulfillment, and increased happiness.
With this in mind, I wrote Growing Hope-to help you make a friend of your mind, create constructive responses to stress, and strengthen your resilience, while continuing to honor your innate sensitivity. I know these ideas work, because by using them I've surrendered my title of Grand Duchess of Worry and Impatience (my mother was the Exalted Empress) and become only an occasional visitor to Impatient Worryland. And what a relief it is.
Renewing hope and regaining a sense of balance and rightness within yourself may not be easy tasks-indeed they are not-but they are simple. As spring trees and flowers teach us, the ability to bloom anew is always present. And it brings incredible rewards both to you and to those you love.
2. Media Mayhem and Madness
Recently, my son did a swim-with-sharks scuba dive. As you can imagine, it was not a trip my mother-self heartily endorsed. He told me it was perfectly safe because the vast majority of the sharks ignore the insignificant little humans in the water and zero in on the dead, bloody stuff called chum that the dive guides spread in the water. The resemblance to the media with its penchant for emphasizing violence is hard to miss.
In a review of Michael Moore's movie Bowling for Columbine, Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star pondered the culpability of the media in America's love affair with guns and violence when he wrote, "What is the role of the American media, powered by the voracious monster of 24-hour cable news? Why is it that coverage of violent crime has soared 600 percent even as homicides have fallen 20 percent?" From watching and reading the news, who would have guessed that homicides have fallen 20 percent? No one. How could we, given the media's penchant for embracing the "If it bleeds, it leads" standard?
The way I see it, if hope is a helium balloon, society, through its cohort the media, has a thousand pins at the ready to prick it full of holes. While it's important to know pertinent news, our hope and optimism flag when fed a steady diet of the bad, ugly, and violent. It's best to choose to grab the information we need, then turn off and tune out.
3. Economic Iffiness
The other day I overheard a woman at the grocery store saying, with a rueful chuckle, "My 401K is not okay!" She is not alone. I am not very financially savvy, but it appears as if the economy in general and the stock market in particular have been struck by something akin to perpetual PMS. Because of the insecurity created by this malaise, many of us are experiencing, firsthand, a sense of economic vulnerability that we've only heard about in discussions regarding the Great Depression.
No longer able to hang our hopes on external financial circumstance, we would be wise to plan for the future but not live in fear of it. Accomplishing that Herculean feat requires that we develop an ability to nullify fear and create a sustainable, inner sanctuary of peace and positivism.
4. Sandpapered Senses
The effects of personal pain, media madness, and an iffy economy on our sense of hope are readily apparent. Less obvious, but no less draining, is the bombardment of unrelenting stimuli hailing on us wherever we turn. Babies know their limits and, when overstimulated, are not at all shy about sharing them with whoever is available. We recognize the signs in little ones and act in their best interest by removing them from chaos, comforting them with rocking and crooning, and, best of all, encouraging them to nap. Few of us adults are as consciously aware of our own needs. The omnipresence of loud music, cell phone shouting, loss of personal space, miles-long to-do lists, the assault of sugar and caffeine, and our own internal demands for performance and personal perfection have caused us to lose track of our own saturation points. Not honoring our sensory and emotional limits is causing us to "numb out" and anesthetize ourselves before we blow a fuse and strike out or stroke out from an overload of energy.
When we're at the mercy of overwhelming stimuli, none of us has the ability to tap into our well of inherent hope. In fact, instead of taking gentle care of ourselves when signs of overstimulation surface, we often push ourselves harder and castigate ourselves about our imagined failings. I know, because that's exactly what I used to do to myself.
Until a few years ago, I was ashamed of the "oversensitive" label some significant others had given me, and as a result, I added a few equally unflattering labels of my own. I thought I "should" be able to tolerate the involuntary auditory assault of loud music at home and in public places and chastised myself for the "bitchiness" that arose when I said Yes too often, didn't get time alone, and ground my teeth to the bone when people chewed loudly. Sandpapered senses were a huge factor in my own erosion of hope-and still are, when I don't pay attention.
Luckily, a friend introduced me to a book that has been a real lifesaver for me. It is entitled The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Survive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine Aron. According to Dr. Aron, if you tend to feel that the world around you-and usually within as well-accosts you with too much, too often, too loud, and too long, you are probably an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and need to accept that your personal wiring can assimilate less stimulation than is usually present in your life. I took three important pointers from Aron's book: First, I've been able let go of the unflattering and untrue labels that others and I had given me. Second, knowing that I'm simply wired differently from about 75 percent of the other people, I now either make sure to take care of myself when going into a situation ripe for overload or try to avoid those situations for which there are no good solutions. Third, my husband now understands that my wants and needs are not unreasonable and accepts me as I am. All of those adjustments have made a huge difference in my life and help me maintain an attitude of hope and a healthy lifestyle.
Many of the suggestions and ideas in Growing Hope are intended to help you remove as much of the sandpaper stimuli from your life as you can so that you have more energy for planting and harvesting seeds of hope and creativity.
Consciously Courting Hope
I know that we are in hellish times but that the world is rich in peace and mercy and beauty. -ANNE LAMOTT
For many years I volunteered my services as a therapist, chaplain, and bereavement group leader at hospice. The main regret I heard from both patients and bereaved persons was some version of, "I wish I'd been more aware of what I really wanted.... I wish I'd paid more attention to those I love.... I wish I'd lived my life rather than the one I thought was expected of me." In other words, at the end of life, many people wished they had been more conscious about important aspects of their lives and relationships. Instead, many felt that they'd been swept along by external currents as easily as a leaf is swept downstream, and sorely regretted having lived by rote rather than by choice and design. One woman's statement was particularly poignant. Holding my hand, Hilda whispered, "I'm dying before I've really been happy or ever been really myself."
In my heart, I often thank Hilda for reminding me to remain conscious, choose to be me, and choose to be happy. Of course, no one feels Pollyanna-happy all the time, but we can learn to make conscious choices that invite peace, harmony, and hope into our hearts and souls a majority of the time. To the well-known adage, "Anything worth doing is worth doing right," I would add, "Anything worth doing is worth doing consciously."
You may be wondering if we even have the right to grow hope and choose happiness when there is so much pain in the world. I suggest that it is precisely because there is so much pain in the world that we must grow hope and choose happiness. One of the most powerful ways we can affect the larger whole and help create peace is through generating positive feelings and attitudes and bringing light into the darkness within and without. Peace on earth begins within individual hearts.
Finding Balance and Ballast
Everything starts with awareness. Take a moment to think about what and who may be getting shortchanged in your life. What might you wish to do differently to attain day-to-day equilibrium? For me, the answer is usually much the same: Paint, meditate, and exercise more regularly. Both painting and meditating clear the clutter from my mind, and exercise cleanses my body and emotions, which is very balancing. Gretchen, a client of mine, had a different answer: "Work less, worry less, and be less uptight." Without a moment's hesitation, another friend replied, "Oh, that's easy! I'd be a lot more balanced if I lived more in faith and less in fear." I bet hers is a pretty good answer for most of us. I know it is for me.
You will do yourself, your health, and your relationships a loving service when you have the courage to gently explore the imbalances in your life and take steps to correct them.
Once we become aware of what needs rebalancing and begin to work toward achieving more symmetry, it's immensely helpful to know what types of ballast keep us on an even keel. Friendships, creative outlets, playing sports, being with our children, taking time for ourselves-there are so many. My favorite Webster's definition of ballast is "something that gives stability or weight especially in character, conduct, ideas, or morals." The vast majority of individuals whom I interviewed for Growing Hope felt that a belief in something greater than themselves bolstered their spirits and kept them afloat. Many mentioned that the love and support of family and friends sustained them during stormy times, and almost everyone agreed that being able to help others gave them a sense of meaning and purpose that was instrumental in their being able to "keep on keepin' on" when the going got tough. It appears that ballast often incorporates faith, love, and service.
Excerpted from Growing Hope by Sue Patton Thoele Copyright © 2004 by Sue Patton Thoele. Excerpted by permission.
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