Monday, June 29, 2009

The problem with hope.

Or perhaps it is more a problem with the inconsistent approach we have toward the notion of hope. We, by turns, tell people that they have to have hope and not to get their hopes up. The various and sundry sayings on the topic run the gamut of 'there is no such thing' to 'you can't live without it.' So which is it? Or is it both? Or neither?

I considered the possibility that the difference between not getting your hopes up and having to have hope might lie in the situations that they are used. This didn't seem to work out, however.

We seem to say 'don't get your hopes up' in situations where there actually IS some small possibility that whatever we are hoping for could happen. It might not be probable or likely, but it is not totally impossible. I think we see this frequently in situations with children. It is almost parental code for 'it ain't gonna happen.' It serves to delay likely disappointment, but not much else. The person who says it probably feels fairly certain that the let-down will be coming, but doesn't want to voice the bad news yet. If the hope is that an absent parent will finally, finally come to visit or that Santa will bring a pony, the adult on the spot has a strong idea that neither one is going to happen. So what is accomplished by delaying the disappointment until the non-arrival of the parent or the pony? It could be that the adult also harbors a tiny hope that they will not have to disappoint the child. It could be that they want to protect the child from the inevitable sadness. It could be that they want to delay their own sadness in seeing the sadness of the child until the last moment. But I wonder if it really serves anyone to do so.

The same holds true when adults use it with each other. Perhaps the one saying it has seen the other person face too much disappointment and can't bear the notion that they will be flattened by disappointment yet again.

On the other hand, when things look as if they are irretrievably hopeless, we tell the person that they 'have to have hope.' "There is always hope." Etc. etc. Even when we know for a fact that there is not always hope, the semblance of hope must be maintained. In fact, the more desperate a situation looks, the more we insist that there is hope. A cure may be found. It is only temporary. It's probably not as bad as it looks. It is always said as an attempt to cheer someone up. But absent any evidence that it might be true, it frequently falls flat.

We also are skeptical of anyone who seems to maintain hope in the face of improbable odds. At the very least, we might consider them to be desperate. In the extreme, they are simple or deluded. A perpetual Pollyanna is not taken very seriously.

So what the heck is going on here? I'm not certain by any stretch of the imagination, but the most obvious possibility is that it is a vital survival mechanism. What would happen to someone who truly had no hope? There is at least some chance that they would give up and be able to release the pain of disappointment. If there is no hope, then there is no expectation and it would make the pain of disappointment less. But I think that would only be true of a minority of people. And the effort to reduce pain would also reduce joy.

Even at my most cynical and at the lowest points of my life, there has always remained just a tiny seed of hope that whatever pain or loss was going on would somehow be lessened in the future. It may not, in fact, happen, but being able to anticipate potential improvement in the future can remove enough of the edge of the current pain to carry on into the future. It could be self-delusion or a coping mechanism, but it also could be an innate survival tool. Even if it is delusional, a reasonable amount of hope cannot hurt us in the short term and may help us make it through to a better place.

"Never deprive someone of may be all they have." -- Anonymous.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Missing the Obvious

Spring came late to Portland this year. And as I've done every spring since I moved to my current home, I've eagerly watched for the camellia bush outside my kitchen window to bloom. Since it is on the north side of the building, it is usually the last to bloom. So as its sisters on the south side burst into lovely colors and smells, I stepped up watching for 'my' camellia to bloom. As the month passed, there were absolutely no flowers on it. It must have been trimmed at the wrong time last year, because there was not a single bud on the entire plant. I kept watching and watching, no camellias. I was so focused on the camellias that I almost missed out entirely on the azalea that is planted right next to it. It wasn't until the roses started rioting across the back fence that I turned my attention away from the camellia and its lack of flowers this year.

And this in turn made me consider what else I have missed while focused too closely on something else. The short answer is that I'll probably never know for certain. But it bears some examination so as to reduce the occurrence of it in the future. Like most people, I've spent the majority of my adulthood wrapped up in whatever task/person/event demanded my attention at the time, to the point of shutting out even the idea that other things could or should merit some of my attention as well.

I've been a master at missing the obvious most of my life. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, "it's as plain as the nose on your face," or "if it had been a snake, it would have bit you," I'd never need to work a day in my life. And that is not counting the times I have heard, "how could you not know?" I was always too busy trying to be a good daughter/mother/wife/friend to even recognize other possibilities that would have enriched my life if I'd but welcomed them in. There are a few huge ones that come to mind and I'm sure there must be dozens of others.

And don't get me started on the more subtle possibilities that I have let pass me by. They must number in the hundreds, if not thousands. I'm fairly blind as far as subtle things going on in my own life, my own possibilities. Which is odd because I tend to recognize the subtleties that occur for other people around me. The standard joke with me is that I wouldn't catch a hint if it hit me upside the head with a two-by-four. I suspect this might be a by-product of focusing on one thing and missing another. But part of it must be due to my preference for directness. So, what's to be done?

I'm happy to report that I've gotten better about noticing/recognizing some things that come into my life unexpectedly. I'm not to the level of awareness that I hope to achieve, however. And I don't think it is necessary to throw the baby of specific focus out with the bathwater in trying to open myself up to more possibilities and realities. The trick must lie in balancing the two, the question is how. I suspect that it demands a shifting of focus, a more deliberate observation of what is happening both around me and within me. Not focusing on the forest or the trees, but on both in a constant moving back and forth. It requires considerable discipline to avoid sleepwalking through life, to live deliberately and wide awake.

My long observation of the camellia wasn't for naught, however. For the first time since I have been watching it, I noticed that a song sparrow kept hopping along my window sill. And as the weather grew warmer, I saw that she was using the sill as a launching pad into the bush. Once it was warm enough to open the windows, there were delightful baby bird noises coming from it. So, my focus may have been misdirected for awhile, but there were rewards anyway. As there always seem to be, if we but recognize them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Not too long ago, I was in a conversation with a few women. And as happens among women who have given birth, we were swapping 'war stories' about our experiences. The amusing part was when we told our various craving stories. Pregnant women are notorious for craving odd things to eat. There didn't seem to be any sort of particular pattern, each of us just wanted to eat some strange things at times before our children were born. None of us were the classic pickles and ice cream cravers. In fact, I was a bit smug that before my second son was born I was strictly scarfing down raw cauliflower. We won't get into my craving for Jack in the Box tacos with the first one.

The conventional wisdom, whether it is supported by science or not I don't know, is that if one is craving something specific then it is something that you need. If you want a banana, maybe you need more potassium in your diet. If you want a dill pickle, perhaps you need sodium. I can't hazard a guess at what I might have needed from those dreadful tacos, but with healthier choices, I imagine that there could be something to the benefits of those cravings. Just so long as a craving doesn't turn itself into an addiction, there doesn't seem to be any problem in responding to it. A scoop of ice cream is fine, a half a gallon is something else entirely.

This led me to think about non-food related cravings and what they might spring from. If we carry the analogy further, surely they also reflect some sort of need that the person has. We all remember (or perhaps were) the kid in grade school who would do anything to try to be accepted by the other kids. Maybe they were a bit socially inept, perhaps they wore the 'wrong' shoes, or they were just not part of the 'in' crowd. For whatever reason, they felt incredibly isolated and generally mocked by others. Pity was the best they could hope for. But what was really going on here? Was it something worthy of pity or contempt? Not really. For whatever reason they craved connection and, some how, others found them to be unworthy of it. As they got older, they most likely just gave up and hid the need deep within themselves. Some might have even taken the 'sour grapes' tactic and decided that they never wanted it in the first place. My question is, inevitably, why? Why were they mocked for what is a natural desire?

If we look at the food cravings, they are usually met with smiles and good humor. Ha ha ha, you wanted pickles and ice cream. But there isn't any contempt as there seems to be with various cravings for human contact. In fact, even expressing them is considered to be unacceptable. Almost as if it is some sort of weakness to have human needs and admit it. And it truly has me befuddled. What is the possible risk or danger here, to either side of the equation? Nope, can't come up with anything.

Many, many years ago, I worked in the hospital wing of a very large convent. One of the sister's minds had slipped well away from the accomplished, intelligent woman that she had been earlier in her life. She spent her days yelling at little boys who weren't there and crying. Her answer, when asked why she was crying, was always the same. "No one loves me." All of her accomplishments in life disappeared in the face of unrelieved loneliness. No doubt, she had felt the loneliness for many years, but given the nature of her commitment, she probably never voiced it. And, while there was no large scale solution to her past, most of the aides could calm her merely by assuring her that they loved her.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I used to have a next door neighbor in her 80s. She was a crusty old bird who always spoke her mind and the devil could take the hindmost. She'd been widowed, one of her sons had died, even her dog had been killed. But there was no lingering sadness or isolation in her daily life. She took to summoning me over and telling me we were going to have tea. And so we did. It never occurred to me to turn her down. She was obviously living her life on her own terms and would not sit around hoping for company, she demanded it. I think, however, that she was more of the exception than the rule.

And I wonder why. It is almost as if we have some sort of shame around asking for what we need from others. Or perhaps it is a loss of face concerning the fact that whatever it is we crave has not been given to us and we suspect that we are, therefore, not worthy of it. Could it be that those childhood traumas still inform our adult needs? Or is there some sort of tacit agreement between everyone that such things can only come as a gift and the request somehow negates that. On yet another hand, perhaps the asking carries an assumption of a demand on someone else. Or.......I don't know exactly what all else.

More importantly, how does one live truly from one's essential self, if an effort has to be maintained to deny parts of that core? How do we respond to people in our lives with cravings that we may or may not be able to answer? How do we understand them? Maybe those with cravings should feel free to ask for what they need. Maybe those hearing the request should wonder how long the person has been hungry and make them a small snack. After all, there is not anything to criticize in the cravings we all have.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Random goodness

Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to me." -- Muriel Rukeyser.

My first thought when I read this was that it applied to negative outcomes. We read about plane crashes, natural disasters, illnesses and think 'there but for the grace of God, go I." We collectively and openly recognize that life has a random quality that makes everyone of us vulnerable. Whether it be a large natural disaster or a smaller personal catastrophe, something negative can and most assuredly will happen to everyone at some point. We try not to obsess about it; we try to prepare for it. But there is no way to avoid whatever it is from coming to us, whether 'it' is anything from a minor disappointment up to death. This is so patently obvious that there really isn't much to explore about it.

The other face of this coin bears some looking at, however. We tend to overlook the possibility of good things coming to us just as surely as the bad ones do. I wonder why this seems less the case than it's negative counterpart. When we hear of someone else's good fortune, we can feel glad for them, especially if they are close to us. Frequently, however, we feel envy. And if their good fortune involves something we'd hope to have for ourselves, the envy can expand to very ugly proportions.

Why is this? I think it comes from a combination of things. Partly it is a result of deep-seated cultural ideas about the 'haves' and 'have nots.' And partly, I think it comes from a collective sense of scarcity that reaches into our psyches beyond material needs.

The Calvinism of the Puritan colonists on this continent left a mark of predestination imprinted on our collective memories. What you had in the way of material goods was an illustration of where you stood in God's opinion. Wealthy folks obviously deserved what they had and poorer people obviously deserved to have nothing. On the face of it, especially put this baldly, we would reject this notion. But there still seems to be a tinge of it remaining in our subconscious, at least among those who are seen to have more than the usual share of benefits. This, and other historic cultural traits such as regal and clerical hierarchies, leave a deep rift between the favored few and the teeming masses.

With the end of monarchies and state established religion, we did not escape the structure or the belief that everyone has his or her place. Here in the United States, and perhaps other places, we are fed the dizzying notion that anyone can succeed in whatever they choose if only they work hard enough. But, like our Puritan ancestors, we also look down on those who fail to do so, assuming that they just haven't worked hard enough to merit the better things. I think this provides us some mental insulation from the notion that there is a random element to success as well as to failure. The good things in our life must be dependent solely on our efforts or they could disappear. It has also been used to oppress various parts of the population, but that it another topic entirely.

The other problem tends to lie in a deep-seated belief that there is scarcity in everything. It is as if, if you have something there is not going to be enough for me to have the same thing. And to safeguard our futures, we must continue to stock pile more and more, leaving less for others. Or so the thinking goes. But is this notion of scarcity true? I doubt it. I think the problem lies more with the fact that we seem to have collectively lost the concept of having enough. There is a huge industry whose sole job is to convince us to buy more and more stuff and generate perceived needs. And constant bombardment of their messages simply has to have a huge influence or else they wouldn't continue to do it. Many years ago I read a book by (I think) Alan Watts. In it he wrote about how our culture had substituted amount for quality in our property. And I think this also applies to the more intangible parts of life. We can't be happy for others' successes because, on some level, we think it means that they have somehow taken the success that we wanted to have.

But whatever reason lies beneath our understanding, we do not seem to believe that random, unexpected joys can come to us just as surely as tragedies. We seem to only see the lacks in our lives rather than the abundances. There are those fortunate souls who do revel in the joys rather than the pains, but for many of us there is the perpetual 'yeah, but' quality to our appreciation of what is in our lives. I got X, but I really wanted X+Y and therefore, I can't fully enjoy the X that I do have. Perhaps this is human nature. Maybe it is the motivation for human beings to continue reaching forward in our evolution. It could also be something else entirely. No matter what it is, I think we would better serve ourselves by finding some way of shifting our focus more towards the good we have, rather than dwelling on the tragic.

I'm not certain how to do this and, like most things, it probably needs to be different for everyone. Some folks are list makers, some reflective and still others make resolutions to change things about themselves and their outlooks. But no matter how it might be implemented, I feel certain that we could enhance our daily lives by living in hopeful anticipation of the random goodness rather than dreading the random arrival of tragedies.