Hopelessness is not benign.
I was raised by wounded people. Not bad people. just hurt people, probably by the ones who raised them. As an adult, I seem to always find myself in the process of unlearning and relearning. Let me tell you a story of how I learned to hope…again.
As I mentioned, I grew up in a tumultuous household. I was always walking on eggshells, trying not to disturb the sleeping dragon inside my stepfather, because when he got mad (which was often) he breathed fire and destroyed everything in sight. He’d made it clear that I was to have his approval in everything I wore, ate and did. There were grave consequences for disobedience.
During my sophomore year, I wanted to attend my very first dance. By this time, I knew my stepfather well and had not let on how much I wanted to go. If he knew, he would lord it over me, threatening me with it at every infraction, only to, ultimately, deny me permission in the end.
So, I casually mentioned it in passing and asked if I could “just look” at some dresses, being careful not to look too excited. I was permitted to shop for and, perhaps, even purchase a dress, as long as it came past my knee, covered my shoulders, didn’t show any cleavage and was not form fitting in any way. OK, fine. So, we went muumuu shopping.
To my delight, I found a beautiful ankle length, free-flowing African print dress with long sleeves. I felt like a queen when I tried it on. I even walked differently when I wore it. We brought the dress home and laid it out on the couch for “approval”. My mother giggled nervously as she exclaimed how “beautiful” and “such a bargain” it was. I remember shifting my feet and staring at the ground, afraid he could read the desire in my face.
To my surprise, he agreed! Yes!!! This would be my first, official high school dance. That evening came. My hair was pinned up in a French roll. I was fully dressed and all made up, but my mother was late coming home from work. She’d asked me to ask my stepfather to take me instead.
Ok. Deep breath. I walked out to the family room where he was sitting watching TV. I cleared my throat and asked, “Ummm…. Mom is running late. Can you take me to the dance?” I tried to hide my fear and desperation, but it was of no use. I reeked of it, like bad cologne on a fifteen year old boy at prom. He looked at me from head to toe slowly and smiled. Not an approving “Boy, you look beautiful” smile. More like a daunting “gotcha now” smile.
“No,” is all he said and turned back around to watch TV.
My heart fell into my stomach. My shoulders sank, and my knees softened. I almost crumbled, but suddenly, I felt rebellious. I picked up the small train on my dress and stormed into my room. I picked up the phone and called every friend I could think of. My plan was to have them come and get me. I was going to sneak out and walk down to the corner and have them meet me there to avoid any confrontation. But, it was too late. All my friends had left for the dance, already. I sat in my dress and cried for about an hour. He won that night.
Although, I knew one of my stepfather’s signature moves was to get my hopes up only to snatch the rug from under me later, this time broke me for some reason. It’s odd because it wasn’t even one of the worst offenses, but it just hurt so much.
Up to that point, I’d already learned not to show excitement or anticipation. But, this incident taught me that it was dangerous to even feel hope. It took the wind out of my sail. I didn’t want to feel anything after that. I stopped looking forward to things, and I wouldn’t allow myself to get too excited about anything. That way, if it happened, great, and, if not, oh well, I wasn’t expecting it to.
I learned to stop expecting good things to happen to me.
Now, at that point in my life, that actually may have been a functional coping skill to manage a very unhealthy and hostile environment. But, as I emerged from that situation and transitioned into adulthood, I still found myself refusing to get my hopes up.
I was numb. Things would happen to me, good things, and people would say “Aren’t you excited!?”
“Not really,” I thought.
And, for a long time, I thought it was safer to live that way, safer to live without expectation of something wonderful coming my way, because I could never be hurt. If something great happened to me, I couldn’t really enjoy it, for fear it wouldn’t last. I felt I was protecting myself from pain, but, really, I was inviting it to live within me.
Websters 1828 dictionary defines hope as:
“A desire of some good, accompanied with at least a slight expectation of obtaining it, or a belief that it is obtainable.”
So, I was living without the expectation of goodness in my life. And when you don’t expect goodness, it can walk right by, and you won’t even notice. There could be job offers, relationships, opportunities and God knows what else just waiting for you, but without hope, you will never pursue it. And when it pursues you, instead of embracing it, you’ll run for the hills and miss out on the awesome things God has in store for you.
That is why hopelessness is not benign.
In fact, I would say it is highly toxic and can cause death. Death to your dreams, your goals, your joy. Death to your outlook on life. Death to your tenacity and your perseverance. Why press through something if there is no hope to make it to the end? Why fight for your health if there is no hope of restoration? Why push through grief if there is no hope for healing?
“But what if something bad happens?”
More than likely, it will. Bad things happen. The question is: can you handle the bad thing if you don’t have hope for help to get through it?
“But, I’ve been hurt so many times before. What if I get hurt again?”
You’ll get hurt again, no doubt. It’s part of life. But, hopelessness brings a hurt that never leaves and never rests. Your choice. Hurt a little or hurt a lot.
“But I hoped and prayed for something, before, and it didn’t happen.”
Me too. Plenty of times. Keep hoping, anyway. Hope is complicated, and, sometimes, God has been painted as a genie sent to fulfill our every demand. Life doesn’t work that way. Hope doesn’t work that way.
I gave you Webster’s definition of hope earlier. Here’s mine:
A fearless and relentless expectation and anticipation of a good outcome, particularly against all odds, and often to the point of near foolishness.
So… let me ask you….
I hope you enjoy this upcoming four week series on hope. As I mentioned on Facebook, we have eight talented and insightful guest writers offering words of wisdom and inspiration on this topic. Please sign up here to receive the entries via email so you don’t miss a thing!
Also, click here to join Facebook discuission group and go deeper with each other!