By Mark E. Smith
About a year ago, I had the privilege of speaking in front of about 100 inner-city youth going through a “life development program.” These were teens from the roughest streets of Philadelphia, relocated to a rural, live-in vocational program where they accomplished everything from earning a GED, to learning a vocation, to developing independent living skills. And, as the director of the program explained to me, while these young adults knew how to survive in the toughest of scenarios – abusive parents, violent neighborhoods, and a drug-infested culture – they struggled to see the potential of an educated, career-based life. It wasn’t that they didn’t want a healthy, successful life; rather, they didn’t know that they could achieve one. That is, hope wasn’t part of their emotional vocabulary. And, so among the reasons why the program invited me to speak and share my story of overcoming some tough odds was to further introduce the teens to hope, illustrated by my successes despite adversity.
Hope is a fascinating subject, where researchers have found it to be our most powerful life tool toward moving forward no matter our situation. We often confuse wishing with hope – but they’re very different. Wishing merely projects our thoughts into the universe, with no personal action behind it – that is, the only way we get results via wishing is by happenstance, coincidence, or blind luck. Generally, wishing does us little good in our everyday lives. You can wish with all of your might, for example, that your credit card debt will go away; but, as we all know, simply wishing debt away has no result – debt doesn’t disapear based on wishes.
However, hope is a much different process – it inspires us into action, and that does change our lives in very real ways. People who have hope possess the ability to look beyond their current situations, knowing that change in their lives is possible. Think for a moment how powerful of mindset that is: One without hope always feels trapped in current states, while one with hope always believes there’s something around the corner and seeks it. Hope, then, is a catalyst toward moving our lives forward in positive directions. In contrast to one simply wishing away credit card debt to no result, hope inspires us that we have the capacity to spend less, work more, and get out of debt. Wishing, then, proves futile while hope inspires action-based results.
Few places illustrate the power of hope better than in the workplace. No matter a company and its culture, the hopeless and hopeful employees are easy to spot, with few outlooks in-between. The hopeless show up every day dreading their jobs, dissatisfied with their lives, self-proclaimed victims of circumstance. They’ll tell you that their lives are stuck in a rut because of a bad boss, a poor economy, and on and on. Sure, they wish their lives would change, but without acting upon hope, they’re going nowhere.
In contrast, employees with hope are always on the look-out for new potential. Maybe they can ultimately transfer departments to a better boss, or maybe they have their resumes out at other companies. They don’t know exactly what’s going to improve their situations, but hope motivates them to try everything under the sun to move their careers forward. They’re not wishing, they’re doing, knowing that with effort, their careers can change.
Yet, here’s the real question that researchers have striven to answer: How do we find hope our lives to begin with – especially in circumstances when all around us is seemingly bleak?
I want to take you back to the program of inner-city city youth who I spoke with, and imagine for a moment that you’re among them. Say you’re a 16-year-old who’s grown up in West Philadelphia, in public housing. You’ve been raised by your grandmother because you’ve never known your father, and your mother’s a heroine addict. Your 14-year-old cousin just had her first baby, and on your way home from school everyday, you passed drug dealers and prostitutes – the only ones with money. Most of your friends are locked up, in some sort of gang, or are roaming the streets, few left in school. And, this is the only environment you know. There are successful people on TV, but that’s the closest you’ve seen to any kind of existence beyond your neighborhood, and it’s inexplicable to you how anyone on TV got to where they are in life. Now, how do you find hope for any future besides the grim reality that surrounds you?
Researchers have learned that while we, as humans, have the innate ability to hope, it must be socially triggered within us, then exercised by us. Literally, someone must inspire hope within us, and then we must run with it on our own. If inner-city kids stay in an inner-city environment, where there’s a culture of hopelessness – that is, no self-realization that there are possibilities for their lives beyond their grim surroundings – they will simply live hopeless lives, repeating generations of teen pregnancy, lack of education, drug use, and crime.
Yet, when such at-risk young adults as those attending the program that I visited are removed from their grim environment, and they are shown by others the boundless opportunities that they really have, they learn the foremost catalyst for succeeding in life: Hope. That is, they can then see the new potentials that their actions bring.
What’s even more amazing is that with hope as a socially initiated mindset, it’s not exclusive to common experience. See, hope allows us to relate to others on the overall theme of facing and overcoming adversity, regardless of type or origin. As a 40-year-old white guy, with a graduate education, white-collar income, and cerebral palsy, I may seem a world away from inner-city teens of ethnicity. Yet, in speaking with them that day – and as they later shared with me in a follow-up letter – we both inspired each other with hope. They looked at me and thought, Man, if he can get that far with cerebral palsy, I can make it through this program. Meanwhile, I remain in awe of them, thinking to myself, If these teens can grow up in the toughest of environments, and work their butts off to move their lives in new directions with such courage and effort, there’s no excuse for me not to push myself to take on more in life, no matter how scary a challenge may seem. Indeed, a mutual conveyance of hope is life-changing for all.
It’s no coincidence that all life-changing programs – from spinal cord injury rehabilitation programs to 12-step recovery programs to offender reform programs – include the key component of mentors who have transcended their challenges and demonstrate hope for others. Again, hope stems from social awareness, where what we see in others effects what we can envision for ourselves – and when we see someone else who’s accomplished a goal, we have a better understanding that we can, too. We, then, have hope.
What we must realize is that hope is the key ingredient that moves us forward, where while we can never totally know the outcome of any well-intended effort, it’ sure to take us somewhere positive in the process. If you’re struggling with a seemingly hopeless situation – maybe you’re in an unsatisfying job, relationship, or lifestyle, in general – make an effort to find hope. For example, if you hate your job, feeling trapped by what you perceive as limitations based on your company’s culture, your education, and the economy, but the guy next to you with the same skill set just found a better job, follow his lead, use him as a catalyst for developing your own hope. After, all, we see this opportunity for hope within the disability community all of the time, where those with the severest physical disabilities are often the most successful – educated, with esteemed careers, and healthy families – and they offer us all hope that we can achieve the same. We must look at others and tell ourselves, If he or she did it, I can, too – that’s how finding hope works.
And, if you’re one who’s overcome challenges to great success – maybe disability, or addiction, or unemployment, or weight loss, or changed your life in a dramatically positive way – make yourself a “conveyor of hope” to others. Again, hope isn’t challenge-specific, but life-specific. Maybe you’ve overcome tremendous challenges with your disability, but your friend is struggling with weight loss. You should make an effort to be a conveyor of hope in such situations, noting something to the effect of, I’ve never struggled with weight loss, but I remember how frustrating my physical rehab was after my accident, where I put so much effort into it and saw little results at the beginning. But, I stuck with it, and eventually the results came, where I learned that perseverance pays off. No matter the challenge, such a personal anecdote is sure to inspire hope in others.
Of course, there are no constants in life, and such is the case with hope, where we all can lose hope from time to time. I, myself, have struggled in such moments, earlier in life with incurably alcoholic parents, and later in life with an ailing marriage. And, yet, amidst those times of great inner turmoil, where I saw no resolution to the situations in the moment, reminding myself to recognize hope for the future pulled me out of those moments of despair, knowing that although I couldn’t predict the future, I had hope that all would work out for me as long as I pursued productive, healthy actions. See, hope ties into the old adage that it only works when we work it – and when we truly work it, backing it up with efforts to move our lives forward, it has its way of working seeming miracles for us.
No, hope isn’t a guarantee to success or the route to an ideal outcome. Rather, hope is a compass of direction, a mechanism where when we truly work at it – send out those resumes, hit that gym, pursue healthy relationships, accept your disability! – our efforts have an inexplicable way of propelling our lives to levels of satisfaction that we never dreamed.