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Honoring the Fire Within

In the middle of The Shawshank Redemption, the following exchange takes place between the two main characters.

Andy says to Red, his friend and fellow prisoner, "You need it so you don't forget there are things in this world not carved out of gray stone. There is something inside that they can't get to - they can't touch - it's yours."

Red asks, "What are you talking about?"

Andy replies, "Hope."

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, hope has long been recognized for its special powers. Saint Paul placed it alongside faith and love. "For now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face… So faith, hope, love abide, these three." If you were to read the Bible from cover to cover, you would find that the word "hope" appears over 180 times or approximately once every 7 pages. However, it is not just Christians who draw light from a hope-oriented belief system but also Buddhists, Hindus and Jews as well as the followers of Mohammed, the African Ifa, the Native Americans and the Australian Aborigines.

Many prominent scientists have also lined up in support of hope. Karl Menninger, one of the great psychiatrists of the 20th century, believed that hope was an essential component of the healing process. Puzzled and frustrated by the lack of attention it received within his profession, Menninger bemoaned the lack of pertinent research, noting, "Our shelves are bare. The journals are silent". "Hope" was the topic of Menninger's 1959 presidential address to the American Psychiatric Association. He exhorted his audience to nurture this indispensable "flame" and "divine fire". A decade after Menninger, psychiatrist Jerome Frank published an exhaustive review of 25 years of research concerning the effectiveness of psychotherapy. Frank found that many different types of therapy could be effective and suggested that there might be a single underlying factor, "the instillation of hope".

Researchers are finding that hope can play an important role in many facets of life, including promoting quicker recovery following surgery as well as boosting performance in academic or athletic endeavors. In a recent survey, over ninety percent of oncologists rated hope as the most important psychological factor associated with increased survival rates among cancer patients. A study of college students found that levels of general hopefulness were more predictive of grades than performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

True Hope

The kind of hope that we encourage is active rather than passive. It is the ally of human mastery and inspiration as well as the handmaiden of hidden dreams. It is a hope that is based on connection, attachment and engagement rather than fantasies perpetuated in solitude. True hope offers a positive alternative to a life of surrender, pain, and suffering. True hope must be kept separate from superficial optimism or unhealthy denial. True hope brings genuine assurance and lasting peace through psychological and spiritual transformation.

True hope involves courage and liberation. The hope of Christine King offers an especially poignant example of transcending adversity and fear. Only in her early thirties, King is a breast cancer survivor who has battled hard to achieve a remission. Despite the apparent disappearance of her cancer, doctors warn that there is a greater than fifty-percent chance it will reoccur. Nevertheless, she is determined to live a life of meaning and purpose. She has even organized a large fundraising event, Art for Hope to increase public awareness about breast cancer. Upon her wrist is a tiny tattoo consisting of the four letters, h-o-p-e.

Our Most Important Emotion

Hope may be our most important emotion. Whenever disaster strikes, we all look for hope. For example, following the September 11th attacks, the city of New York staged a "tribute in light". Eighty-eight high-powered searchlights, equaling the wattage of two million bulbs, sent mile-high beams of light into the dark, night sky. Architect Gustavo Bonevardi, one of the four designers of the project, stated "The idea of light is almost like the souls of those who died rising up to heaven…It is a memorial...it's also [meant to reflect] light as life, light as hope, light as renewal."

It is hope that stirs the soul and moves the masses. Put aside that "don't worry - be happy" mentality. There is no symbol for optimism within the color spectrum. There are no "optimism flowers". The ancients never wrote a myth about optimism. It has no patron saint. In the last century, the underdog racehorse Seabiscuit offered a palpable hope for the common soul. It was his example that helped rouse a nation mired in the wake of a "Great Depression" and not the seemingly invincible War Admiral.

Symbols of hope are universally present. Consider these especially powerful examples:

St. Jude
This Christian martyr was present at the Last Supper. Decades after the Crucifixion he wrote a letter to followers urging them to be hopeful in a trying time. Today the St. Jude novena is invoked by Christians who are desperate for hope.

The Green Light
In The Great Gatsby, Nick is forever drawn to the beckoning green light on the horizon, symbolic of his life-long dream to go beyond his humble origins.

A Green Pen
Vaclav Havel, spiritual leader of the Czech Republic, signs every document with a green pen to dramatize his hopes for humanity and the planet earth.

This first flower of spring is the hope symbol of the American and Canadian Cancer Societies. Daffodils Days, held every March in both the United States and Canada, generate millions for cancer prevention and research. Long revered as a symbol of hope and renewal, the ancient Romans believed the daffodil could heal wounds. Shakespeare paid homage to the daffodil in his Winter's Tale, noting that they "come before the swallows dare, and take the winds of March with beauty."

Pandora's Box
The gods gave Pandora a beautiful box but she was told never to open it. After a period of blissful tranquility as Epimetheus' wife, the curious Pandora could no longer resist. She took a peek inside the box. Out rushed Old Age, Sickness, Death, Famine, Pestilence, Vice, Greed and Lies. However, at the very bottom, almost unnoticed, there was still one spirit left inside the box, the "gift of hope".

The Hope Journey

Our approach to hope is scientifically grounded as well as practically useful. It is an approach that combines specific suggestions for self-help with the "far-flashing beam" of a philosophical worldview (Philosopher, William James), a kind of "eternal perspective" that researchers have linked to sustaining joy and providing humanity with the "the chief happiness this world affords (Psychologist David Myers)." Before you embark on this journey of hope, take a moment to complete this first hope exercise.

Hope Tip 2: Reflecting on Hope

Before you go to the next page, give yourself a chance to reflect on your most memorable encounters with hope. Imagine before you a billboard with the word HOPE printed in giant letters. What was your most significant experience with this emotion? Perhaps it involved you or a close friend. Maybe it was a particularly inspiring story about an act of love, a heroic deed, or a tale of survival. Perhaps it dealt with hope in the aftermath of September 11th or some another calamity. What kind of thoughts, feelings and images come to your mind?

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