David Krueger MD
Alone on a desert island, Tom Hank’s character in Cast Away attempted repeatedly yet unsuccessfully to start a fire, until his hands were rubbed raw and bleeding. He then constructed Wilson, the volleyball with painted face, as an imaginary companion. Wilson could counter the abject loneliness, affirm his existence, listen to him. He could see Wilson seeing him. (It is, after all, what we do every day in our crowded civilization, to make self-statements projected onto another to either validate or expunge aspects of our selves). A needed companion serving as mirror, Wilson had to be enough. Within moments of creating Wilson, glancing repeatedly at his new witness for encouragement, he successfully began a fire.
Fear and hope both predict the future. The only certainty of the future is to repeat the past, for repetition promises predictability, the security of known terrain, even if it has a limited result. Repetition contains the antithetical hopes of forgetting and fulfilling, recreating and changing. There is no future in repetition, and hope is supplanted by predictability. The pull of the old and the fear of the new inform invisible decisions that become camouflaged in habit, our collection of repetitions. Other choices and patterns remain unseen, outside the usual and familiar. We repeat because we know the outcome.
Hope imprisoned in the past becomes hostage to the familiar; the dread to repeat dances untiringly with the desire to change. At times, we repeat to master belatedly, to detoxify past traumas. Purpose is not derailed, but successful in a journey on the wrong tracks. We fear change, and may be loyal to attachment ties of the past hoping for the exhilaration of winning the affirmation and love (by proxy) that before was elusive. Hope then remains deadlocked within an earlier context and mission.
At times we repeat just to see, in relation to a fixed point of reference, how much we’ve changed. Each time we return to the chorus of a song, those same words are different, for more of the lyrical story has unfolded, and we see more of the unfolding journey at each juncture of repetition.
Hope’s tired legs may give way to despair and, going forward, to anticipatory fear, creating a menu of potential harm. Just as each individual uniquely localizes internal anxiety in a specific designer fear, so also is hope created with its own personal geography.
Tangible, specific effectiveness gives oxygen to hope. “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” E. L. Doctorow states, “You can only see a little distance ahead, but it is enough to make an entire journey.”
Valiant efforts to remedy ineffectiveness, to temporarily dissipate tension or fill emptiness may include compulsive activities, such as sex or exercise, or substances such as food, drugs, or alcohol. The chosen substitute addictively deployed works (for a while) to end tension, to distract. But it’s a promise never kept. Only the impossible is addictive.
In deep distress and abject aloneness, perhaps it may seem that the only way to build a common ground with another is by inducing a similar experience. Helplessness, hopelessness, or anger enlists the significant other to articulate some version of “I can’t stand it anymore.” Only then can the originator unconsciously wink, “Finally, you’ve got it. That’s what it’s like to be me. (And I can know it better when I see it in you).”
The act of sharing hopelessness with another is a very hopeful act. It conveys the message to further the search for its meaning. And, who would want a guide who has never been lost?
Next: The Psychology of Hope Part III. Mourning and Fulfillment