Is There a New Way to Understand Hopelessness?

Gillian May

Photo by Angela Compagnone on Unsplash

I recently read a chapter from Pema Chodron's book When Things Fall Apart. It gave me a whole new insight on hopelessness. We generally view hopelessness as a horrible state that we want no part of. But what if it there's a new way to understand it?

This passage in particular stood out for me:

“In Tibetan theres an interesting word: ye tang che. It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.” — Pema Chodron from the book ‘When Things Fall Apart’.

This is particularly potent for me right now as I travel and live in Colombia; a country that is completely different in culture and language from where I was born.

Living in Colombia has blown my mind in ways that often make me uncomfortable, even though I also find it an exhilarating and gorgeous experience. But I’ve been wondering why I’m struggling at times. What is the resistance I feel in me when I’m confronted with things I’m not used to?

Then I read this passage and it really hit the nail on the head.

Often times when we travel or try anything new, we secretly hold a wish that everything is better somewhere else. We hope that something else will bring us comfort and that we will be better too. We hope the change and beauty of new places or experiences will soothe our constant yearning for more comfort, which will put an end to our pain or anxiety.

When reading this passage, I had to admit that I’ve been searching for the hope that my pain or discomfort will end.

And when I get uncomfortable, it’s because my mind has bought into thoughts like, “this was supposed to be more fun, more relaxing, and more interesting than what I’ve had before.” I’ve also bought into thoughts that as a person, I should be better too.

I once knew some travelers who chased themselves all over the world because they could never sit with themselves long enough to find peace. I knew I didn’t want to be that kind of traveler. And yet, here I am. Everyday, I strive to learn how to be resilient with discomfort, because I know that I’m not. I also know this is a huge cause of suffering for me and many others.

The only thing that’s certain about being alive is that there will always be discomfort. Yet, we’ve lost our ability to be with this simple state. However, in considering how to be more open and relaxed with my life and adventures, I never considered the idea of becoming hopeless. In fact, hopeless is the last thing I would ever want to move toward.

All my life I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety, so feeling hopeless is something I regarded as the complete enemy to my wellbeing. To be honest, I’ve worked tirelessly to never experience hopelessness again.

And now, here is Pema Chodron telling me that becoming hopeless is the exact thing I need to do if I’m to find a sense of peace. This is a shocking revelation. But as I reflect deeply, I know that there’s absolute truth to this.

One of the greatest confusions of my life is whether depression may be a movement towards revelation, versus depression as complete personal ruin. Because the truth is, I’ve had both of those experiences with depression, and I still can’t figure out how that’s possible. But maybe it is.

I now wonder if the painful part of hopelessness is not the feeling state, but rather the resistance to it? And now, as I sit here and allow myself to relax into that hopelessness, it feels — ok. As I practice surrendering the hope that this place and who I am will somehow be better, I do feel more peaceful and accepting of my life as it is, in this moment.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

So then, can hopelessness be a teacher? Meaning, are there lessons we can learn from hopelessness once we stop resisting?

And, dare I say this — is part of the root cause of depression a resistance to our lives and who we are?

Don’t get me wrong, as a former mental health nurse, I know that there are many root causes of depression. I also know that once hopelessness becomes so deep and dark, people can lose their lives over it. But what if we began to explore our hopelessness and see what it is we’re looking for. And by exploring this, can we actually find more relief for our depression as opposed to exacerbating it?

For me, I can see that my grasping for hope is a way to remove any pain or discomfort from my life. I’m looking for better, prettier, quieter, and more interesting. As a person, I also hope to be better than I am rather than just accepting myself and allowing true growth to take place.

I don’t believe this means we sit still and do nothing when we’re genuinely stuck in the mud. Rather, we can try not to grasp violently to the hope that we can run from every painful experience.

So then, we still make changes in service of our growth and wellbeing, but we refrain from the clingy, fear-based decisions that cause us to be further stuck and not at peace. Can I truly hold on to this revelation today? I don’t know. I’m so conditioned to resist, to search for hope, to find a solution for every discomfort.

But if this is truly the cause of self-induced suffering, then I’m absolutely open to a new way of being.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.


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