I have observed an all-too common ingredient in despair. It is the belief that you know everything. We usually define despair as the opposite of hope, which is correct, but there is also delusion in it. As a counsellor I have observed that many (though far from all) people who suffer despair seem to assume that they know how everything is, and how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, may not know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves. That deep hope which is the opposite of despair, requires patience, endurance, a strong spirit of waiting.
This is why philosophers have always seen hope as a core virtue. Modern research backs this up, showing that hope is vital both for resilience and for creativity and success. You need hope if you are to survive the slings and arrows of fortune. You need hope in order to find your purpose. You need hope in order to properly love others. Hope is one of the most important ingredients in our lives.
I'm going to tell a story which will disturb some people, because it's cruel, but it teaches an important lesson. In the 1950s a gruesome experiment was conducted on rats. They were dropped into buckets of water and were timed, to see how long they could swim before they drowned. The rats swam for an average of fifteen minutes before giving up and drowning. Then, on a mere hunch, the experimenter tried something different. Just as a rat was giving up, he would take it out of the water, dry it, give it a short rest, and then put it back in. The result? The rats who experienced this went on to swim, without further rest, for an average of sixty hours before drowning. Yes, from fifteen minutes to sixty hours: two hundred and forty times longer.
What was going on? Well, the researchers surmised that by lifting the rats out that one time, they had been trained to have what we would call hope. And the consequence of that hope was two hundred and forty times more endurance, two hundred and forty times more resilience.
We need to find rich and deep sources of hope in our lives. They will lead to flourishing in good times. And they will get us through the bad.
Like most people I have suffered some dark moments in my life, and at my lowest I once instinctively formulated a question which has at moments guided me when I needed something extra. I have shared it with others, for example suicidal clients, and have witnessed it have the same effect on some other people. This is a question to ask yourself whenever you lose your sense of meaning and purpose and are tempted to despair:
Who needs you up ahead?
Let me unpack this question, starting with the opening words of a poem by David Malouf:
Through all those years keeping the present
open to the light of just this moment:
that was the path we found, you might call it
a promise, that starting out among blazed trunks
the track would not lead nowhere, that being set
down here among wild lemons, our bodies were
expected at an occasion up ahead
that would not take place without us.
You are expected at an occasion up ahead that will not take place without you. Others are waiting there, and they need you. So I ask again, who needs you up ahead?
You may have an answer to this: your partner, your children, your wider family. Or maybe you don’t have any such answer. In either case you are in waiting toward a future which is currently invisible and un-guessed at. This is a time to reach down and find that deeper hope. You don’t know everything. You don’t yet know who needs you up ahead or what they will need. But they are there, and are no less important just because you are currently ignorant. When the time comes and they are standing before you, will be have become the person they need? To do so you will, in the meantime, need to have endured patiently, building strength through waiting, strength which can serve them when they - and your further purpose - are revealed.
When my parents divorced my mother took the house and my father the bush property, where he sat through his pain in a lonely caravan in the southern Tasmanian winter. Years later my father told me of how he had handed his gun over to his brother, to keep himself safe. It was a sense of the future which kept him going. Sure, this was his own future - a life which turned out happily in the end - but in grasping for those bare threads of hope I am certain it was also the future of his sons whom he new needed him not only then but also up ahead. My life may have been coloured by a very different tone had he not handed over that gun. I, his son, would have been robbed of things I very much needed, by never having them. Things I needed years and decades later.
What is the world calling for from you? Perhaps you don’t now yet. Good, so this is a time of training and preparation. If you endure, you will build the qualities needed from you when the answer becomes clear. Anybody who has suffered greatly in their life and endured knows this. They can give things afterwards, when they have re-found their strength, which they were incapable of giving before. Stop being so short-sighted as though the present moment is the only moment in life. Stop being so arrogant as though you know it all, and know what and who, awaits you in the future. Stop deciding everything and learn to wait and listen. Who needs you up ahead? Are you making yourself ready for what will appear?