Hope: The Bridge Between Darkness and Light

Sometimes the night time can be bleak.  That’s when old fears, new injuries and ongoing anxieties mingle and persist.  Yet, as first light dawns, there is a stunning transformation.  Within seconds, and even as I recall the night’s drama, it is replaced with the anticipation of a good day.  Almost every morning I am amazed and grateful.  Almost every day the transformation is the harbinger of the internal resources that help me realize those good days.

This seeming miracle, this feeling of hope, takes place with such regularity that I have to believe it is embedded in my psyche, a permanent part of my character.  I have done nothing to cultivate or deserve the extraordinary bridge between darkness and light, between the worst and best in me. But I depend on it almost as much as I depend on food and water.

So I have been asking myself: What creates and nurtures this capacity to leap across the abyss, this ability to wait out the hard times with some sense of optimism?  What is this feeling called hope?

To me, the most compelling description of hope comes from Erik Erikson, who finds its origins in the infant’s struggles to resolve the developmental conflict between Trust and Mistrust.  Picture an infant, hungry, tired, cold—crying, thrashing, needing help that doesn’t come right away.   It’s easy to imagine a kind of despair setting in.  But then a parent arrives, lifts her, holds her, feeds and comforts her, not once but again and again.  With time, the baby comes to trust that, although she is miserable, she won’t be in the future. The repetition eventually builds a “protective barrier against despair that can last a lifetime and is the basis for resilience,” optimism, and faith.    (from Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Further Life)

In essence, the cycle of need and rescue teaches the baby to hope, which is not innate, but rather a learned response to fear.  Once learned, it becomes a virtually automatic, unconscious expectation that good will follow bad.  This is how I awaken each day.

Erikson makes such sense to me.  With him, I suspect that, throughout our lives, there is something about our capacity for hopefulness that reflects these early lessons.  At its core, the experience remains primitive, beyond words and what we think of as cognition.  But hope is also updated, reformulated and revised as we move through our lives, growing into childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood—through childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood.

Let me illustrate.  As toddlers, we become more autonomous and better able to make things happen.  Psychologists call this a sense of agency.  Just the other day, I watched my 10 month old granddaughter pull herself up to a standing position, let go of her supports, fall, stand, fall and stand. My god, I wish I was so tenacious in pursuit of an accomplishment.  It seems clear that little Lucy regularly draws on the capacity for hope that she learned months earlier.  Now, though, the quality of hope is no longer passive.  It doesn’t depend entirely on an adult.  It now reflects her growing autonomy, her own will to succeed, and her growing capacity to influence her autonomy.  From this point forward, I believe, the quality of hope she experiences is inextricably connected to these other skills.

With each new developmental stage, our experience of hope is joined by new skills, new ways to see the world.  As we enter adulthood, for example, we learn to actively participate in intimate relationships, to love.  Let’s say that our solution to what Erikson calls the challenge of Intimacy vs. Isolation, is to be consistently generous towards our lover.  Generosity actually makes us feel closer and brings our lover to us.  Now our updated experience of hope comes with a strong dose of generosity.  As we awaken in the morning after a fight with our partner, for instance,  we almost immediately—and automatically—think about what we might do for her.  This pleases her; she draws closer; and the link between hope and generosity grows stronger.

Now there is a fusion of our will to succeed (in resolving the fight), a belief that we can (because we are competent), with both generosity and hope.  As we awaken, and in the twinkling of an eye, hope is immediately present—joined by these additional friendly capabilities.  We may not yet have worked out a strategy for how they will work together but we are already optimistic that we will find a way.

These days, psychologists know that people don’t pass through these stages in an orderly way, one after another.  Rather, we begin to resolve a conflict, like intimacy versus isolation, then fall back.  Then we try again.  With time and multiple efforts, we build a style of resolving those conflicts that is all our own, yet also profoundly influenced by the people and the general culture that surround us.  Each resolution builds on and integrates aspects of the ones before and folds into the ones that follow.

Erikson’s model features eight stages and eight challenges.  For the purposes of this essay, I’ll now skip to the last two.  The seventh challenge emerges as adulthood moves towards old age.  Here the struggle is between what he calls Generativity vs Stagnation.  To successfully resolve this developmental crisis, we must build a capacity for the sustained care of others.  In very old age, the challenge pits Integrity vs Despair.  If we fail to resolve this struggle, we become indifferent and disdainful.  If we succeed, we grow humble and attain a state of wisdom.  I would place myself in the midst of these two crises.

What amazes me is that, at 75, hope is as present and visceral to me as it was at 15.  For instance, I fear that my grandchildren will inhabit a world that is polluted and ravaged by storms.  Yet, in the same moment, in the same breath, I hope that they will be well,

that they and their generation will find solutions that we can’t now see.  What’s more, there is some vague notion that I can help.  Even if I can’t see the exact solution, I might help them build a belief in their own efficacy.  I hope so, and that almost means that I believe so.  Let’s hope that this is more than just a way to comfort myself.

Here’s another example.  I feel that the pain in my back and my arm and my wrist are only increasing, leading to moments of despair.  But I also hope that I find ways to affirm and to take pleasure in my life anyway.  I don’t call up the hope, like some ancient Greek God.  I don’t wrestle with the despair.  The hope emerges by itself, just as it did when I was young, now joined and refined by all the many ways that I have learned to manage myself, to draw on the support and love of my wife, my children, and my friends.  I know how to distract myself, for example, by walking instead of running, by writing essays not professional papers, and by paying attention to the young people I mentor.  As we think and laugh together, the relationships make me feel young and joyful, on one hand, and comfortable in my age—reflecting a wisdom that may be no more than the belief that my life will work out.

It seems to me that hope is as much a part of me as the skin on my face when the sun is shining brightly.  It is a deep reservoir of good will.  My trust in its benevolence may be as close as I come to religious faith.

 

 

 

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Moving through life transitions with strength and clarity

Just yesterday, a friend of mine told me that she is feeling uneasy.  She needed to leave her job, not because she was bored, and not exactly because she felt incompetent, though maybe that feeling was creeping up around the edges.  But something else beckoned, some future she couldn’t quite see—less driven, more restful, more peaceful.  I am pretty sure that my friend is on the verge of a major life transition.

Countless moments in our lives reflect these transitions – when we begin to crawl, to walk, to talk, when we first seek employment, leave our homes, fall in love, choose a spiritual path, lose our jobs, become infirmed, become grandparents. These transitions test our mettle and enable—require—us to reinvent ourselves.  How we move through these disruptive and exciting experiences profoundly influences the shape and quality of our life course.

We are taught that stability – of individual character, political opinion, physical attributes – is admirable and desirable, and to be sure, attainable, yet change — small and profound  – is constant and inevitable, defining our lives at least as powerfully.

Erik Erikson, a preeminent human development theorist of the 20th century, charted a developmental course that identified eight stages – framed as “choices” – throughout the lifespan.  The final stage pits “generativity” against “stagnation.”  He emphasized the capacity of older people to guide younger people, what some current commentators call giving back and playing it forward, as we decrease our self care and self promotion in the service of future generations.  When we fail to do so, we can turn inward, stagnate, and grow bitter about being displaced, unimportant, alone.

Let me fill out the Eriksonian canvas for a moment.  During what some people call the “third chapter” of life, there are numbers of disruptive experiences.  There’s the empty nest, for instance, a time of loss and grief for some, of joy in the freedom it brings for others—and combinations of both for most of us.  There’s retirement, which, again, thrills some of us and devastates others, particularly those whose whole identity seems to have been wrapped up with their professional reputation and community.  And as I wrote a few weeks ago, there’s the transition from aging into old age, that time when many of us are more defined by the diminishment of our capacities and the nearness of death, but also feels like clarity and wisdom.

Developmental psychology has come a long way since Erikson’s pioneering work.  We no longer think about universal developmental pathways — that people march, lock step, through certain pre-ordained stages.  As it turns out, our development is profoundly influenced by innate biological and neurological qualities, by the families, communities, and historical eras in which we live.  This shift shows us to be more unique than Erikson and his contemporaries believed but, because we are influenced by similar social and economic currents, also more predictable.  The Post-World War II and the Baby Boomer generation, for instance, share certain characteristics.

In a future essay, I’ll be taking us deeper into developmental theory and how it helps us understand ourselves.  Today, though, I focus on the transitional periods, themselves.  Think of the shift from infancy to early childhood, from adolescence to early adulthood, from early adulthood to midlife, from midlife to old age.  In other words, I’m not interested in the stages but how we navigate from one to another.

As a heuristic devise–to make the transition period come to life–I’m proposing a five phase process.  I don’t think the five phase progression is invariable or inevitable but I do hope that this portrait makes the process more vivid and accessible to you and gets you thinking about your own transitions.

It begins with the sense that there is something off kilter about the present, something inhibiting, uncomfortable.  There’s an often incoherent, hard-to-articulate, sometimes nerve-wracking, often exhilarating need to do something new.  Change jobs, retire, move to a new location, return to sculpture—the possibilities are almost endless.  For some, the feeling arrives suddenly, as for example, after a spouse gets sick or dies, or when we retire, though even in these instances, we may have had some premonition that change was near.  For others, the change creeps up on us gradually, quietly.  We are a little bored with our job—not very but enough to notice.  We no longer feel a part of our work community—everyone is younger and seems more in tune with each other.

Let’s call the first phase At the Brink.  Here there is confusion, consternation, fear, but also yearning, desire, and excitement about the possibilities ahead, although we might only just sense them.  Even clearly anticipated and well planned transitions—retirement, moving, empty nests—are filled with this strange combination of feelings.  Let me illustrate how the combination of feelings sometimes struggle with one another:  Many a person sets off on a new course, building friendship networks, skills and optimism, for example, until they swim far from their accustomed shore but not yet close to the new shore, what we could call a settled adaptation to the transition.  They grow frightened, as if they might drown.

Often, the most difficult part of any transition is Letting Go.  Letting go of the centrality of parenting, professional accomplishments and identity, the structure of our old lives.  A certain amount of grief and mourning is key., since it seems important to see clearly our losses in order to free ourselves to move forward.

To manage the Brink’s uncertainty, we bring to bear the resources that guided our prior lives.  These include coping skills built through many developmental transitions and the narratives of our lives, the stories we tell about ourselves.  Altogether, these stories provide our identity.  “My life was built on hard work … I’m a family man … I take some chances but mostly I’m cautious… “  In retirement, for example, I can still work hard—maybe in my garden, rediscovering my artistic voice, volunteering at nonprofits.  The stories are reassuring, an anchor in the storm, but they aren’t completely satisfying because they don’t entirely fit our new circumstances.  They need to be revised.  They need to announce: This is who I am now.  Writing the stories that make us feel whole and that help us fit in our culture, is one of the most important of all human skills.  Revising our Story, then, is the third phase of successful transitions.

We needn’t reject the person we have been, but we do need to accept that some of that is in the past and find ways to affirm the person we are becoming.  The narrative we build draws from past, present, and (anticipated) future.  It might go something like this: “During those long years of child-rearing, I put off my professional life, I tamped down some of my passions.  The new activity isn’t as new to me as it might seem to others; it’s the fulfillment of drives and dreams I’ve long held.”  To continue:  “I always saw myself as a musician, a mentor, a crafts person.  Now I can play out that side of myself.”

There’s more than a story in the transition.  There is activity.  As your new life begins to reorder itself, new activities emerge, bump up against the old, take hold.  New patterns of behavior begin to find a rhythm of their own: for instance, practicing the piano each morning after meditation, followed by a walk, then time with a local nonprofit, helping children learn to read.  In effect, you practice the new activities and the rhythm of activities as they fit together.  As we know, practice provides skill and comfort.  With time, the new rhythm seems natural and satisfying.  Let’s call this the phase of Practice.

Finally, we need to bring together past and present, old skills and new, old narratives and new ones.  There are so many threads to reweave.  We recognize our old selves and yet we are different.  We are better at some things even as some of our capacities decline.  This is the phase of Reintegration.

The renewed coherence that comes with Reintegration is liberating.  Imagine the liberation when you have practiced a tennis shot or the scales on a piano to the point where they are natural.  You don’t need to think about them.  They seem to play themselves.  You are free to pay fuller attention to the music or the tennis game.  In that moment, you pass through the developmental transition, and now, paradoxically, you can be yourself once again.