When all hope is lost…..


“We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”

Martin Luther King

The anchor, as a symbol of hope, originates from stories of the ocean: the anchor is the sailors last resort in response to stormy seas. Sturdy, firm and unchanging, it is a metaphor for the human soul, that unchanging part of us that can hold us strong in times of turmoil.  We can be most in touch with our own anchor when we are pushed to our very limits.

But what happens when we are unable to find hope? Even that final hope that, however bad things are, we can at least hope for change?

I was told a story once of a childrens’ Doctor who had dedicated himself to the care of babies dying of cancer. As he helped the parents of his patients, during the worst time of their lives, he tried his best to create hope in a hopeless situation. Whilst being honest that death was close, he would say… “… but what could we hope for at this time, for your baby?”  And the parents realised their hope for the kind of death they wanted for their precious child: for their baby to die cradled in their arms, free of pain, knowing fully the love of their mother and father during their last moments.

A total loss of hope, the feeling that nothing will ever improve, that there is no solution to a problem, that unbearable feelings will never change, leads logically to the belief that dying by suicide would be better than living. Hopelessness is a dangerous suicide indicator.

Most people who feel hopeless have depression, with its negative thought patterns: “everything is terrible and nothing will ever change.”  This thinking pattern is the very opposite of resilient thinking: “Things are terrible at the moment, but they could change.”

Hopelessness is commonly expressed in statements such as:

Things will never get better.
I will never be happy again.
I will never get over what happened.
I don’t see things ever improving.
I just want to give up.
I feel so hopeless.

This pattern of thinking and behaviour (hopelessness and suicide) has been studied extensively by Dr Aaron Beck, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and the founding father of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) .

Beck stood alone with his work on identifying suicide-prone individuals and reducing suicidal risk by applying effective intervention. He discovered that hopelessness is the key psychological factor driving people to suicide.

coping_skillsThe foundation insight of CBT is that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are profoundly interdependent: what I think about my circumstances affects the way I feel, and that affects the way I behave… and how I behave affects the way I feel and think… and so on, in a two way, circular pattern of cause and effect.

The fundamental intervention of CBT is to isolate the thoughts and beliefs that lead to depression and hopelessness and challenge them: whilst they may be momentarily true in a moment of pain or challenge, they are unlikely to be enduringly true.

The empowerment that results from understanding, and being equipped to alter, one’s state of feeling, thinking and behaving is profoundly life changing, as I have witnessed in my work with the Penn Resiliency Programme, currently being taught to 11 year olds by enlightened schools in the UK, through How to Thrive, a research funded state entity dedicated to improving the mental health of young people.  The Penn programme has been shown to reduce both adolescent depression and suicide.

The mental health of our young people is in the spotlight at the moment, as adolescent suicide and depression rates escalate, alongside ever decreasing resources to treat sufferers.  The Times are currently drawing attention to this growing problem through their excellent “Time to Mind” campaign.

When all hope is lost…. then it is time to find a spark of hope for something, some small thing, to accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.

Our survival instinct depends on it.

“When Mrs Evans arrived, her drooping figure put me in mind of Dolores. I wondered if people who had lost all hope developed the ability to look slightly transparent around the edges, a hologram of themselves, empty of spirit or desire.  I had to stop myself from passing my hand across her body to see if she had substance.”        Honor’s Ghost

Anchor Illustration by Melanthe Grand

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