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Overcoming Hopelessness
Light at the End of the Tunnel

The darkness of hopelessness arrives when there is no escape from the intolerable. Experts who have reviewed the suicide notes left by the ancient Romans, Greeks and Jews find repeated references to being trapped in an impossible situation. In the film version of J.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers, there is a powerful affirmation of the soul's longing for liberation. Note this exchange between Aragorn and Eowyn, two of the principle "forces of light."

Aragorn: What do you fear, my lady?

Eowyn: A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accepts them, and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall and desire.

Aragorn: I do not think that will be your fate.

In this chapter, we offer specific suggestions for overcoming hopelessness. We begin with case studies that demonstrate various forms of entrapment, the central problem in every experience of hopelessness. In our view, the "entrapment" that is felt in hopelessness is the result of either a disrupted hope motive or a conflict among these motives (attachment, mastery, and/or survival). These motivational disruptions and conflicts can produce as many as seven different types of hopelessness, including "dream abandonment", "fear-based hopelessness", "alienated despair", and "hopeless rage". (This explains why various experts have disagreed over the years, each claiming that the "opposite of hope" is one experience or another- in truth, there is more than one "opposite" of hope.)

Additional sections of this chapter deal with two other serious consequences of hopelessness; namely: depression and self-destructive behaviors.

Related issues covered in our book

  • Types of entrapment: Understanding motivational disruptions and conflicts
  • Varieties of hopelessness: Recognizing and dealing with the seven types of hopelessness
  • Dealing with depression: Diagnosing and treating "hopelessness depression"
  • Preventing violence and suicide: Risk factors associated with especially dangerous types of hopelessness

Hope Tip #16: Confronting Abandoned Dreams

"Dream abandonment" is one of the seven types of hopelessness. It results from a disruption of the mastery motive.

Part A: What do you believe?

Reflect for a moment on your life dreams. Choose one that is important to you and yet seems to be out of reach. Answer the following questions with this particular dream in mind.

1. I believe there is less than a fifty-percent change of realizing my dream

2. I do not have the personal resources (talent, strength, or persistence) to achieve my dream

3. I do not see any way of achieving this dream

4. I do not have the social resources (friends, family, other networks) to achieve my dream

5. I do not believe that I have enough time to achieve this dream

Part B: Confronting your "dark zones"

The questions that you just answered correspond to the five basic issues considered important by psychologists who look at hope from a goal-perspective. These include an individual's subjective probability of success, sense of personal agency, perceived options, social support, and a positive view of time and the future.

Despair increases when negative thoughts cluster together to form a hopeless mindset. The effect can be compared to tiny snowflakes that turn into an enormous and deadly avalanche. For this reason, it is important to extract from the above 5 questions, your particular "dark zones", the one or two most troubling beliefs that lead people to abandon their goals and dreams. Are you uncertain as to whether your hard work would lead to success? Do you feel that you lack talent or skill? Are you alone in your quest? Is time a major problem?

Part C: Understanding your "dark zones"

Just the process of isolating your one or two "dark zones" may be enough bring down your degree of hopelessness. The next step is to gain a better understanding of these trouble spots in your psyche. In Hope in the Age of Anxiety, we discuss the most likely reasons for incurring problems in each of the five dream domains. Here is a partial listing of the topics we consider important:

  • Subjective probability of success: fears (failure or success), mastery vs. attachment conflicts
  • Sense of personal agency: cultural, familial, and gender scripts, parenting styles
  • Perceived options: anxiety and cognitive flexibility
  • Social support: basic trust, learning styles, control preferences
  • Positive view of time and the future: faith and spiritual foundations

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