I have been struggling for the past few months to retain my optimism. It seems that everything in my life was beginning to be burdensome and impossible with few very limited opportunities for hope. Knowing that a large part of my pessimism is a family legacy, I’ve been working for most of my adult life to overcome it. I’ve had good success until recently. I know all the reasons why I ended up in such a hopeless place (some of which I’ve written about in previous blogs) but knowing the reasons doesn’t fix the feelings. This morning after euthanizing our second dog in the past several months I think I hit a new low.
After sobbing my way through a few had to do chores I decided to take a walk. I filled my pockets with tissue and with tears streaming, walked. As I started to the small lake near my home, my thoughts were centered on the pointlessness of life. The existential part of my brain explored all the angst and why questions that can’t ever completely be answered. In Ecclesiastes Solomon wrote about life as chasing after wind. What is the point of any of this? It is only on days like today when death or tragedy are unavoidable, when I am unsuccessful in dodging these thoughts and so I seriously look this question in the eye. Circumstances have been forcing this question to the surface more frequently. As a Christian I first go to my faith for answers.
Sometimes the answers are clear and direct and quickly secured. Lately, the answers have been increasingly elusive which I’m certain is part of my current struggle. Each week I visit my mother in an assisted living facility and wonder about growing old. My mother is not dealing well with the accumulating losses of aging. Hearing her litany of pain each week has only added to my own pessimism. One of my older neighbors is selling his home and moving with his frail wife into their son’s home. With tears he told me that while he was thankful they had a home to go to he never thought their lives would come to this.
This week as I watched my sweet dog struggle with health issues that we could not fix, I couldn’t help but ask “What is the point?” As I angrily asked God this question this morning, my first sight at the lake was a mother duck shepherding her three almost grown ducklings. We have watched these ducklings grow from the time they hatched. Few survive but these have. Then a small flock of geese announced their presence and glided across the water to land. In the morning sunshine it was a beautiful sight. I next heard the familiar tweeting of a hummingbird and noticed that it was hovering from tree to tree just slightly ahead of me, almost as if it was escorting me. This guidance continued for almost half of my mile walk. As it flew off I began to follow a pair of gold finches who flitted from bush to bush ahead of me. This lead to my favorite spot around the lake at a friend’s back yard.
My friend has multiple bird feeders and attracts flocks of finches, and hummingbirds, ducks and geese. I lost count of the numbers of birds in the continuous flashes of gold. As I walked up the path she was waiting with her arms open to give me a hug and let me cry. All of these pieces of experience served to work like a prism focused on my hopelessness diffusing it into millions of fragments. Manageable fragments. Life goes on. That is the truth. My choice is to respond from a place of hopelessness or from one of hope. This place of hopelessness is why people come to counseling. Whatever the issue, our solutions haven’t worked and hope in ourselves, in others, in God or life is lost.
Counseling works because it instills hope. As Safran and Muran (2000) wrote “…at a fundamental level the patient’s ability to trust, hope, and have faith in the therapist’s ability to help always plays a central role in the change process” (p.13). One of my former clients wrote a letter to me where she stated that her healing came when she looked in my eyes and saw that I believed she had worth. Because I treated her with dignity and respect, she believed she was deserving of dignity and respect. Because I had hope in her she could have hope in herself. This process is repeated countless times each day in counseling offices across the globe. Whether the hope comes from the gift of human connection or from an answer to a problem, or for all the other countless reasons that therapy works, hope is resurrected.
People straighten their shoulders, lift their heads, take a deep breath and try again. Life goes on because people can be resilient and can believe minute by minute that life will improve. This reminds me of a quote from my childhood hero Robert F. Kennedy: “Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Safran, J. & Muran, J. (2000). Negotiating the therapeutic alliance: A relational treatment guide. New York: The Guilford Press.
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.