I learned a term recently that inspired a new conversation with myself and with the world around me: Hope fatigue.
Hope fatigue itself isn’t new. We’ve all experienced the feeling of getting excited about the promise of change, of “better times” ahead, only to find that life seems to stay the same, or it gets darker, scarier, more uncertain. Even though we were initially excited, and maybe even inspired, what we’re left with is one more piece of evidence that, actually, things never change. Maybe they never will.
And if I keep fighting to keep hope alive, even in the face of suffering, of fear and catastrophe, over and over again, sooner or later I am going to become exhausted. The danger here is that I slip into complacency, into depression, into hopelessness. I lean into pessimism and apathy. I drown.
Hope Fatigue Creeps in
I can hear hope fatigue creeping in when I start to say things like, “this is as good as it’s ever going to get” or “why even try for joy if it’s only temporary and everything good ends eventually anyway?”. It’s a dangerous and lonely place, it masks the beauty that exists right now, even in the dark. And it prevents me from putting effort into making things better in the future.
Hope fatigue isn’t wrong. I think it’s natural. These past two years have seen so many false starts, so many pushes for change, so much rhetoric around creating a brighter future. I have felt incredibly inspired, excited, and (yes) even hopeful at times, only to discover that, while a few things may have shifted incrementally, the seismic landfall I had hoped for simply didn’t materialize.
Hope is Precious
Hope is necessary, a reason to believe in existence. But what if I’ve been looking for hope in the wrong places? What if hope actually exists in the tiny and mundane moments? What if hope isn’t the promise of everything finally “working out”, but in the gorgeous little ways that it doesn’t?
When my mother was in hospice, we lived in the moment for ten days. We did not know when she would take her last breath. We laughed and cried beside her bed. We held one another, we breathed in the October sunlight and watched her smile. One might have said there was no hope in that room. And they would be correct, if hope meant that my mother would not die.
But, in fact, there was a tremendous amount of hope! It existed in the tapestry of our family and the sacred, unspoken bond that means none of us dies alone. It was in the little hints of joy that highlighted the sorrow. It was in the love that she had infused into her little family, the love that would carry her out of this life and into whatever comes next. There was hope in the realization that even death can be beautiful.
The Promise of Hope
The promise of hope in grief is simply that we come through it changed for the better. That, at the end we are truly transformed, whatever that may look like. We do this, not by focusing on control of the whole, but on gratitude for the small. It requires letting go of what we think we want or need and embracing the possibility that joy can exist in tandem with pain.
Noticing is Hopeful
For me, it’s noticing the changing of the seasons, how this is constant, despite the horrors of the world. It’s about cultivating joy right now, getting dirty or salty or silly. It’s about noticing life all around me, regardless of what the president did last week. My tomatoes ripened on the vine. My children comforted a stranger. My flowers bloomed.
By inviting myself to step forward into my life — into what is scary, but also what is right here — is hope itself. In so doing, I don’t have to wait for the world to “fix” itself. I’m already showing up as a different person — a person more deeply aligned with what already exists. Hope can look like acceptance.
I simply return home to myself and … be. It’s not energy depleting, it is energy restoring. It is simple. It means I can let go of waiting for grief to “be over”. I can also stop trying to grip happiness, teetering on the edge of foreboding joy, ever expectant of the moment it might end. Both are there for me, again and again. I can stop fighting it.
Some days are immeasurably difficult. That’s okay. No amount of mindfulness is likely to make hope fatigue go away, and it’s no good to pretend it isn’t there.
My job is to acknowledge that this is part of transformation — and then go water my garden.
Read more from Sara Striefel on Open to Hope: Through the Holidays, Grief Just Is – Open to Hope