Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Trouble with Hope and Fortune

As we tumble out of 2016 and into the big unknown of a new year that seems staged with all kinds of hazards, I find myself reflecting on two words that have gotten quite irritating to me: hope and fortune. 

"I hope for you much good fortune in 2017!" What a lovely sentiment, right? Or is it a mindless way to pat yourself on the back that you've provided some optimism and well wishes that sure-to-goodness will help when you actually have no idea what your friend or family member might need in terms of emotional support or companionship? 

Hope implies that the future has the capacity to fix the present. I "hope" things get better/easier/smoother/kinder.... In other words, whatever is happening right now clearly isn't okay, and won't or can't become okay until something changes. So this hope for change pits an uncomfortable present against odds for improvement that will somehow appear because "hope" is on the table for the next random deal.

When someone offers me "hope" that all will improve, I experience this as pressure to reassure the hopeful supporter that I'm actually okay and share his or her optimism. Meanwhile, inside I feel a new emptiness as another possible source of support has dropped away. This person is offering "hope" because he/she has no idea what to do or how to help. I'm on my own. 

I'm taking these odd feelings and perceptions out of my pockets and holding them up for scrutiny not because I want to be rude, ungrateful or hurtful, but because I see this as a learning moment. When I'm hurting deeply, and scared and unsure about what life is calling me to do, receiving someone's "hope" leaves me feeling extraordinarily lonely. How do I let this well-meaning person know that his/her hopes are being dashed because actually my situation isn't getting any easier or more comfortable? How do I ask this person for further support when all that high-end hope already got wasted? If I call with the next bad news, I have to start by disappointing: All your hope didn't work, sorry!?

I remember the first time I read a book by Pema Chodron, "When Things Fall Apart," and I was appalled at her suggestion that a healthy, workable attitude toward a difficult situation would require an element of hopelessness. I wanted to toss aside this Negative Nelly suggestion, but I tried to understand what she might mean. I garnered a nugget of understanding as I began to open to the possibility that being okay didn't actually require that problems get fixed. Thus began my bumpy journey toward "ending the war with reality" and finding ways to be okay even when I find myself in a predicament that really isn't okay at all. 

Being in the midst of all that is and finding an inner resource of well-being provides a certain security of peace in any given moment, whereas "hope" for an improved future doesn't secure any amount of peace right now and instead pushes it into an undependable future. Therefore, hopelessness can offer a foundation for inner peace whereas hope for change will nearly always keep peace out of reach.

So, now that I've established myself as an ungrateful wretch who can't even appreciate a friend whose trying to help with all that generous hopefulness.... I'll make a few suggestions of phrases that I'm going to work on offering instead of ambiguous "hope" when I see someone struggling through a difficult life event. I'm so grateful to people who have offered these phrases or something similar to me recently, and I firmly believe that we can boost our support networks by working on this type of communication. 

"Wow, you are facing some really difficult challenges right now. I'm impressed by your resilience."

"What you are going through right now would make anyone a little crazy. Can I meet you for coffee or happy hour? I'm available to hear whatever you need to say out loud."

"I remember when you helped me by doing (fill in the blank). Is there something I can offer you now that might help or just give you a boost?" 

"I see that you are hurting, and I'm sorry that this is so difficult."

"I'm impressed by your coping skills, but that doesn't mean this isn't super hard."

"I can't know what you are going through because we all live through our own unique challenges, but I know what it's like to be frustrated/hurt/scared, and I hope you can remember that you're not alone in your struggle."

"What would help you feel a little bit better right now? Can I help make that happen?"

"Thank you for being so open about your difficult challenge. It's helping me and other people see more clearly how to work with our own situations."

I promised at the top of this rant to also discuss my other semantic nemesis: fortune, or specifically, the prevalent use of the word "unfortunately."

This is a word that people use to precede any sentence that will end in bad news. Generally misfortune is an all-purpose excuse for not helping or pursuing a problem further. It's a conversation ender, a polite way to back out of a problem and put its entirety back into the lap of the person who probably came seeking an answer or something tangible that might help. 

No matter what is being asked, the answer that starts with "unfortunately" means that help won't be forthcoming. Why even listen to the rest of the sentence when it starts so unfortunately? This all-purpose "not my problem" moniker is especially popular among professionals who can't or won't be pursuing your interests beyond the current conversation. 

My disdain for this word has left me considering both ends of its uses in my own life. When I'm inclined to say it, I try to consider my own motivations. Am I blaming some nebulous force called "fortune" for my own lack of interest or availability? "Unfortunately I can't help you do that because blah blah blah...." What does "fortune" have to do with it? Perhaps the reality is that I don't have a certain skill, enough information or the time to contribute meaningfully to the problem. Maybe I just don't care. Generally, a more appropriate and honest response might start with the phrase "I'm sorry." 

"I'm sorry that I can't help. I don't know how."
"I'm sorry, but I don't have any time in my schedule right now to help you with that."
"I'm sorry, but this is outside my scope as your friend, doctor, teacher..."

At the receiving end of many, many sentences that begin "unfortunately," I'm learning how to hold people, especially professionals, accountable...

"So when you say that unfortunately you can't help, are you telling me that you are unable or unwilling to help?"

"What do you see as the problem?"

"What do you think I should do in this circumstance?"

"What are you able to offer me in terms of help or advice at this time?"

These phrases take "fortune" off the table and bring back a certain tangible element of what is happening and who has power to affect the circumstances. I've gotten quite bold in stating that "fortune" doesn't really have a role in the decision process; this forces a more honest discussion about responsibility and choice. 

When a friend or family member uses the word, it's helpful to consider that this person may be trying to politely back away from a trouble that he/she isn't prepared to work with. I've crossed boundaries with friends/family members in my attempts to find someone willing to hold space with me when my burdens feel too heavy to carry on my own. I'm trying to learn how to let people off the hook or apologize when I've offered too much information (TMI!) or "over-shared." Other people sometimes have too much on their own plates to help digest my own pot-luck of yuck. If I've over-shared with you, I humbly apologize! It's unfortunate, really (lol?)! 

If you've read this far into my odd little essay, I thank you for your interest and your time. Perhaps if a few of us catch ourselves in conversation using words out of habit and reset ourselves to speak with clearer intention, we can improve dialog in our families and communities. 

I hope you join my crusade!
Fortunately or unfortunately, this is the end of my rant.


  1. Thank you! I see how working so hard to find words is not helpful. Your guide to what has been helpful to you is precious. Thank you again! Paula

  2. Really hard to figure out what to say sometimes. Thanks for your suggestions. Also know that you can speak clearly to me, and probably many others (but not all). I actually have used your (yoga) advice to help get me through a couple of tough times - the Duka/Suka (sp) thing - focusing on what that person would want me to do, and it was never to suffer... so damn hard though.

  3. Jerri, though I am too far away to offer to have coffee with you I am willing to listen whenever you need an ear. You have taught me many things in yoga class and I appreciate your wisdom. You can email me if you want my phone number though you might still have it from yoga. Denise McGuiness

  4. Jerri, you are an inspiration. I do so appreciate your heartfelt honesty, integrity and authenticity. I hope you never hesitate to speak out, to cry out, to shout out . . . We will cry with you, but more than that do what we can to make a difference in whatever small way that might be. Sometimes, we do, however, need direction. You are such a wonderful teacher. I believe the most predictable fact of life is it unpredictability. Yet, I have no doubt that your efforts will bear fruit, whether or not it's what we hope for or expect. Much love is coming your way. xox