Tyler has been talking with me for over a year about how much he hates his job. He’s underpaid and underappreciated and his friends and colleagues continually assure him that he can find something better. His resolution for the New Year was to find a new job, but week after week he arrives at his therapy sessions and tells me that he hasn’t taken any actions – such as updating his resume, or making phone calls – that might get the ball rolling. He’s spends a lot of time beating himself up for “procrastinating,” and being “lazy,” but that hardly makes anything better, and in any case, it isn’t true. He isn’t lazy; he’s hard-working and active.
He begins to suspect that he may not completely understand what’s going on when we realize that he’s also “procrastinating” in his love life. He had a very painful breakup with a boyfriend four years ago – the second bad breakup in a row – but he feels that he has gotten over those losses. Every week he tells himself that this is going to be the week when he starts to circulate and meet new guys, but when the weekend arrives, he mostly just stays home alone. Yes, he is “risk averse,” but why?
When we look more closely, he notices something new that surprises him. “I’m scared to hope that anything could be better in my life,” he tells me. Hope is the belief in the possibility of a better future, and we could also say that fear is hope’s shadow, because whenever we hope we have to live with the possibility that we won’t realize our dreams. This fear of hope turns out to be the core issue for Tyler. He remembers that, when he was younger, his father actively discouraged, and even ridiculed, him for having any big dreams about his future. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed,” he would tell him. Tyler internalized the idea that hope for a better future is foolhardy, so he learned an unconscious strategy – “If you don’t hope for anything you can never be disappointed.” The present may suck, but at least it’s a known quantity. It’s as if he took his personal motto from the philosopher, Nietzsche, who wrote this dark comment, “In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.”
This philosophy seems to have a lot of adherent, but the trouble with this point of view is that we can’t live by it. The first step in achieving anything new is to visualize it clearly, and without the capacity to dream and hope, we really can’t visualize much of anything. That means that, without the capacity to hope, we can’t get much done in this life. As Martin Luther King said, “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps you moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all.”
I talk about Tyler because his predicament is not at all uncommon. Many people condemn themselves to stultifying and mediocre lives because they don’t dare to imagine anything better for themselves. So my suggestion to Tyler is that he deliberately set aside some time regularly to allow himself to imagine a better future for himself – and that he not hold himself back by any considerations about what is “practical” or “realistic.’ The purpose of doing this is to exercise his atrophied “hope muscle.”
Having done that, his next move needs to be to utilize one of the mottos from the twelve-step programs, and “fake it until you make it,” that is, to act as he would if he actually believed it was possible to realize some of his dreams, and then to take some initial steps toward making them happen, even if, at the moment, he has no faith that any such thing could actually happen. In order to move forward, his task is to awaken again that capacity for hope which surely lies dormant inside him. He doesn’t need to create this capacity, because it is innate in all of us. As Emily Dickinson described it, “Hope is the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all -.”