Finding hope in a hopeless place

'We must accept infinite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.' (Martin Luther King). 

The transliteration of the word 'hope' in Greek is the word elpis. In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on earth having been created by the gods using earth and water. Pandora was given a container and was told it contained special gifts, but she was not allowed to open it. Curiosity got the better of her and Pandora opened the box. The box contained death and many other evils which were released into the world. Pandora struggled, but failed, to close the container and all the contents escaped into the world except for one thing that remained in the box; elpis. 

It is suggested that Zeus may have put elpis (hope) into the box to help mankind through the hard times that the other contents of the box would bring. Elpis was the personification and spirit of hope and was depicted in Greek mythology as a young woman with flowers in her hair or hands. 

This Greek myth suggests that elpis or hope is a means for humankind to cope with the difficulties that life may bring. The contents of Pandora's Box were all negative in their impact and would bring suffering to people, elpis or hope would be the item in the box to help alleviate some of the suffering inflicted by the other items.  

Hope as a concept within psychology, has been studied as a means to understand how even in the most difficult of circumstances, hope can be powerful and positive in its effect upon a person. In his book Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl who was a Jewish, German psychiatrist, wrote of his experience of being imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II. He quotes from his experience, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. ” 

As Frankl suggests, even in the face of hopelessness, all is not lost as the personal choice to choose our attitude to what we are facing is our's alone and as he implies is a fundamental human freedom. Such an attitude that can be adopted is one of hope. According to positive psychologist Charles Richard Snyder (1944-2006), hopeful thinkers achieve more, and are physically and psychologically healthier than less hopeful people. Snyder characterised hopeful thinkers as people who are able to establish clear goals, imagine multiple workable pathways toward those goals, and persevere, even when obstacles get in their way. Granted, this may sound like an impossible position to hold in the face of life's difficulties and challenges!

Reinforcing this link between hope and psychological well-being, a study of parents who had physically or intellectually disabled children examined if there was any significant relationship between hope and psychological well-being with these parents. The findings revealed a strong, positive and statistically significant correlation between hope and psychological well-being among the parents having differently abled children (Gull & Nizami, 2015). This study suggests that parents who were hopeful in the face of a very difficult situation, were also psychologically healthy. 

Just like Martin Luther King quoted at the outset, history gives us examples of people who held onto their hope in the face of a reality that promised little chance of that. Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi all held onto hope in the face of hopelessness. This personal hope that they had, not only helped them to endure injustice and suffering, but also gave others hope too that positive change was possible. Their hope was contagious and facilitated personal hope among observers. 

In conclusion, hope is a powerful concept that is available to all. Pandora's box maybe opened in our lives and we may feel that we have no fight left in us and no coping mechanism left to employ. Just like Pandora's box, hope maybe under the lid. Tapping into this concept of hope and trying to utilise it may help in finding hope in a hopeless place.  

References :

Frankl, V.E. (2006) Man's Search For Meaning. Beacon Press: USA. 

Gull, M and Nizami, N. (2015). Comparative Study of Hope and Psychological Well-being among the Parents of Physically and Intellectually Disabled Children. International Journal of Modern Social Sciences, 4(2): 143-152

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Written by Dr Mark Rackley CPsychol AFBPsS

I am a chartered psychologist specialising in working with adults, adolescents and couples.
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Written by Dr Mark Rackley CPsychol AFBPsS

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