Friday, May 27, 2011


The most useful thing I have learned about bringing hope to others is this: I have to keep a huge inventory of stories, symbols and language that grounds my own hope. I do this so that I can still find my hope at the times when I don't appear to be successful at bringing hope to others. Far from being a well ordered searchable catalogue, my inventory is a random assortment of positive societal changes I have noticed, things that turned out better than I expected, times when I was okay but didn’t know it, and physical reminders of pivotal life events. I polish this collection regularly and
keep it firmly centred in my mind. When I need them, I choose items from the inventory to remind me that I can hope even when the world refuses to change at my behest. I need them more often than I ever could have imagined.
Yesterday I found myself trying to jot a simple answer to a question asked by Loraine, a psychologist who works with troubled teens. She wrote:”How can I help bring hope back to those who have hoped and been repeatedly disappointed and with good reason do not believe in hoping for anything?”
It’s a good question, one faced by so many of us in the helping professions. As Karen W. Saakvitne so aptly states in an article entitled How to Avoid the Occupational Hazards of Being a Psychotherapist, “psychotherapists hear that which society wishes to silence.” Society wishes to silence it for good reason. Hearing it makes us feel terrible!
The act of opening ourselves to hearing terrible things presents us with two important challenges, the obligation to do our best for the people we are helping, and the duty to be all right after we have done the work. As we strive to improve our professional practice, we tend to search for better tools we can use to help others, losing sight of the things we might need to do so that we ourselves can be healthy.
Loraine had mentioned hope to a troubled teen. He had said,”When you hope for something it never happens. Chances of it succeeding are 0.7 million zeros, no, infinite zeros!" You can bet that every one of those zeros represented a disappointment, a time when adults and friends had failed him. No wonder Loraine felt stuck. I felt stuck also when I first read his words. Why should such a boy be expected to hope again?
I myself rarely work with troubled teens. On the matter of dealing with them, I have very little advice to give. Yet even as I read her question, characters from my hope inventory were lining up, ready to parade along the road of my consciousness. Among them was the teacher who once lived under a large tree in the far corner of the grounds of the school where he now teaches. Following close behind was a woman who told me that her life was changed by foster parents who took her in when she was 16. These leaderly adults, now the prize of our society, came to me, real and clear, raising my hope by their very presence. They had been through hard times. They had not turned out as expected. What could I do but thank them for reminding me that, when I get to thinking that nothing good can come of a situation, it’s time to start doubting myself?
To Loraine I wrote: “Implicitly your very presence and interest likely brings hope because you are a caring, reliable adult. This is the most important thing to keep in mind when you are working. You are already bringing hope. It is all too easy to forget this when you get bogged down in agreeing that they have no reason to hope because they have been disappointed.” When I wrote this I was imagining the adults who, in years to come, would remember Loraine’s caring. I was hearing the stories they would tell.

Saakvitne, Karen W., (2001). How to Avoid the Occupational Hazards of Being a Psychotherapist, Innovations in Clinical Practice: A Source Book (Vol. 20) P329.

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