How Do We Hear the Bird of Hope?

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all….” – Emily Dickinson, Hope Is a Thing with Feathers, 1861.

I first read Dickenson’s famous poem during a troubled childhood. Rather, I heard it read to me by a compassionate teacher. This simple verse inspired me over the years, whenever I fell into feelings of hopelessness.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t get the metaphor and quite naturally conflated hope with wishing. I wished that I would feel better.

The distinction between hoping and wishing is important. When we seem to feel “hopeless,” we’ve spent too much mental energy wishing.

Wishing seems to be about the future, but it’s embedded in present feelings and memories of mistakes and losses. The degree to which wishing is tied to memories is manifest in the frequent use of the word to mean the same as regret: “I wish I’d prepared more.” (If I had, I’d feel better now.)

Hope is about the future. Hope is how we want to become in the world, with a sense that we can do things to get there.

In preparing for this post, I reviewed the research and theoretical literature on hope. Though much of it was intellectually appealing, there was nothing I found that could help me help clients who feel hopeless. In fact, the research emphasis on goal-pursuit and planning can further demoralize those who lack the energy and confidence to set goals and meet them. How could you set goals, plan, and act on them when you feel listless, isolated, sad, rejected, oppressed, trapped, or unlovable?

When we feel bad, we must resist the urge to perceive the world or judge ourselves predominantly through feelings. Rather, we must behave according to our most humane values of compassion, kindness, appreciation, and respect. A sense of meaning and purpose is a byproduct of value-creation. When we have a set of core values and stick to them, life has meaning and purpose. Building more meaning and purpose into your life requires acting on your values rather than temporary feelings.

How to Hear the Bird of Hope Sing

Walk among trees and listen. In urban areas, you’ll need to listen hard to hear the songs that are there.

Get in touch with your basic humanity. Our sense of basic humanity connects us to other people, animals, nature, spirituality, and our own creativity. It helps us appreciate that a little bit of each of us is in all of us.

Focus on what you can control. Powerless feelings occur when we focus on what we cannot control. Shift your focus to what you can control, namely, yourself. We can’t control other people or most of the events in our lives, but we have absolute control over the meaning we give to them.

Energy and purpose tend to rise and fall on the meaning we give to events and behaviors. All behaviors and events are open to plausible meanings other than the ones we assign by habit.

Consider which of the following will make you like yourself better:

  • “There are lots of cruel people in the world.” Or, “Most people are more frail than cruel.”
  • “People are narcissistic, manipulative, liars, hypocritical.” Or, “Most people would help a child in danger.”
  • “I’ll be respectful, if you agree with me and validate my experience.” Or, “I’ll be respectful because it’s the right thing to do.”
  • “What’s the point of being respectful? No one else is.” Or, “My respect will make it more likely that you’ll be respectful to someone else, who may then be respectful to another person, who then may be respectful to yet another person.”

The great task of life is to give our experience the most benign interpretations that are plausible. Control the meaning of your life, and you’ll hear the bird of hope sing.

Value something or someone. To value is to make someone or something important, worthy of appreciation and emotional investment. When feeling bad, focus on the person or object of value, not on your feelings. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies; what we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on. Focusing on bad feelings will make them worse. Focusing on someone or something else will improve feelings. We raise self-value by valuing others and lower it by devaluing others.

You can’t fix the world, but you can make it a tiny bit better just by respecting everyone you encounter. Do some small thing every day to make the world a better place. Use the vast contagion of emotions to spread positive regard, which can be as simple as gentle eye contact, a slight nod, or a smile.

Think of what you want to do and what keeps you from doing it. To overcome feelings of being oppressed or trapped, we need to be clear on what we really want to do, no easy task with feelings of hopelessness. It’s easier to consider your primary complaints—what you think is wrong—and find the desires embedded in them. For example:

Complaint: My situation will never get better.

Desire: I want to make my situation better.

Complaint: What’s the point? I feel like giving up.

Desire: I want to create meaning. I want to make my life better.

Focusing on the desire, rather than the complaint, activates the analytic and problem-solving part of the brain that had been numbed by feelings of hopelessness. Think in terms of the contribution you would like to make to the world. No contribution is too small.

Help yourself feel worthy of love. The only way to feel worthy of love is also relatively easy: Behaving compassionately, kindly, or affectionately makes us feel worthy of love. The more we behave this way, the louder grows the song of hope.

Though it’s sometimes very faint, the song of hope is always in our hearts. Listen. If you still can’t hear it, rest. And listen again.

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