“Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us but by us.” These were the words of President Barack Obama, in his victory speech at the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2008.
Jump to 2022, and we’ve surpassed 1 million Covid-related deaths in the U.S., witnessed an attack on the nation’s Capitol, hundreds of mass shootings, an uptick in bigoted legislation, a reduction in commitments to climate change, a contracting economy and the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
As columnist David Ignatius noted, “nearly every American has a foreboding the country they love is losing its way,” and regardless of political affiliation, Americans are feeling “more fear than hope.”
As a citizen, this breaks my heart. As a clinical psychologist, it worries me.
Hope is not just the bedrock of this nation. Based on my clinical practice, I’ve seen that its presence — or lack thereof — is the key differentiator between depression and suicidal depression. When there is a dearth of hope, people give up. Healthy reactions of anger, sadness, and activism are replaced with unhealthy reactions like avoidance, stonewalling and self-sabotage.
But as a nation we cannot give up. And there are five steps we need to embrace — as individuals and collectively — to refill our tank with hope.
1. Contextualize. When we lose the perspective of the big picture, setbacks can feel daunting. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner reminds us of this truth: "History… is not a linear narrative of progress.” The severity of the problems we face today are not unique to our generation. We need to contextualize and remember that just because we’re two steps back today doesn’t mean we cannot take three steps forward tomorrow.
2. Grieve. Grieving has a protective effect. Things will never go back to the way they were before the Covid-19 pandemic, before the attack on the U.S. Capitol, or before all of the individual hardships we’ve endured over the last few years. However, when we honor our feelings about the possibilities we've lost, we create space to imagine new futures.
3. Focus on Meaning. Having a “why” behind our actions has a refueling and motivational effect. In moments of injustice, defeat and helplessness, it’s important to listen to the anger that arises. It tells us what we care about and serves as a bridge toward meaning, which is critical to finding the energy to continue pushing for change.
4. Find Agency. Agency is the reminder that “I may feel hopeless but I am not helpless.” Building a sense of agency looks like practicing boundaries, communicating needs, not blaming others for our own choices, educating ourselves for necessary skills and even asking for support. It’s hard to feel agency in circumstances we don’t understand, so for those feeling most hopeless, learning more about how legislation, voting and our government works is critical at this juncture.
5. Mobilize. Start with small steps. Engaging with our community to achieve shared goals builds confidence that progress is possible. As we see impact from our actions, it emboldens us to dream bigger. Consider engaging with local politics or boards. Invest in the long game; there is an immeasurable importance in contributing to a future we might not partake in.
Recently when I felt overwhelmed by the news, I found myself wandering the Obama portraits tour in San Francisco. Standing in front of Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of President Barack Obama, I read the caption: “... the blooming flowers, along with the closed rosebuds, suggest the present and future flowering of a new era in a nation that has elected its first black president.”
I realized that some part of me had sought out the portraits so I could dip back into the well of hope that I felt with President Obama’s first run. After all, when he took office, the country was undergoing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Yet, his election to two terms was an unprecedented sign of progress and gave me immense hope for the future.
I am a practicing therapist. But I was never trained in graduate school to support patients through global crises that I was simultaneously experiencing. So, the advice I share today is also advice for myself.
As Obama said in a 2013 commencement speech, “You can’t lose heart, or grow cynical if there are twists and turns on your journey... It’s those folks who stay at it, those who do the long, hard, committed work of change that gradually push this country in the right direction, and make the most lasting difference.”
This is not our moment to give up hope. It is, instead, our collective moment to pause, grieve, learn, find meaning, refresh and mobilize so that we may invest in a future we believe in.