Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965
In part one of this essay I described the Hell Well as the pit of despondency we dig ourselves into through worry. Since worry and despondency are seemingly undying, or at least perpetually renewable, we need a tool against them that’s just as strong. That tool is hope.
Hope springs eternal. Yeah, whatever, put it on a poster with a baby sloth and hang it in the church basement. Any of us with even the tiniest ember of cynicism still glowing from thousands of hours of listening to Pavement records want to scrape that lavender-scented pap to the toilet and flush twice. Which is why we need to get over ourselves and accept the fact that hope is eternal. The powerful conviction that things can always improve will not die unless you let it. No facts can invalidate it; no reality can extinguish it. Hope’s immutability is what makes it such a ferocious weapon against despondency. “Hope is an ax,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, and it is–an indestructible ax. An adamantium skull cleaver hewing bloody stumps from despair.
Cynics will try to make you believe that a commitment to hope is naive or foolish. That it denies reality in favor of soothing lies. They’re wrong. As I’ve argued before, pessimism has no monopoly on reality, because reality doesn’t care what you think about it. Choose to believe reality can improve or choose to believe it can’t–reality won’t change either way. But by choosing to hope you will change your attitude, and changing your attitude allows you to change your actions, and actions do change reality.
I’m frankly so sick to seeping death of pessimists painting hope and optimism as callow self-deception that I’m taking a paragraph here to fight back:
Pessimism and fatalism are weak and cowardly strategies to avoid pain. When you believe a situation can end well, it hurts when it doesn’t. To avoid that pain, cynics choose to deny the potential for success so that failure hurts less. It’s easier to just crawl along the bottom of the Hell Well then to risk the pain of crashing back down after you try to climb out and don’t quite make it. Meanwhile those of us who stubbornly hope have to smash our bodies from that fall then find the bravery to stand up and do it again. That takes strength. I fought and won a war against my own brain. I used my hope and my will to defeat a mental illness that had strangled my life. I am stronger than the people who cave to the weakness of expecting the worst. And if I am, me, an art school kid from a Pittsburgh suburb with a planetarium in its high school, then you are too.
This isn’t to say that fear, despair, and negativity aren’t necessary. Knowing what to hope for and to fight for requires knowing what we’re afraid of, what we dread happening, and what we desperately want to avoid. Achieving victory necessitates identifying defeat. Identifying defeat–not anticipating it, and not surrendering to it before the battle even begins.
For those of us prone to worry and despair, when a bad thing happens, we fast-forward our minds to envision the next bad thing that we anticipate happening as a result of the first bad thing. Then we jump to the third bad thing that’ll happen as a result of the second. And then the fourth, fifth, sixth, until we finally hit the worst, most worrisome bad thing. For many of us the procedure becomes so automatic that we skip right to the end without even realizing we’re doing it. Our thought process becomes simply Bad Thing Happens -> WORST THING NOW INEVITABLE. That’s irrational surrender via despondency, and it’s like digging yourself down the Hell Well with a Briggs & Stratton 6.5 torque 190cc power earth auger.
Luckily, you have an ax. You can swing it into the sides of the Well like a mountain climber to pull yourself back out. That metaphor doesn’t represent simply switching on the vacuous sunny thought, “Things can get better.” That’s passive, watery hope. Wielding the ax of hope represents performing specific and difficult mental work to shift your mind from worry and despondency.
Actively change your mindset by examining the source of your despondency and conceive of specific rational possibilities that counter it.
When you controvert your despondency by envisioning reasonable alternate outcomes, you demonstrate that your worries aren’t inevitable. You remind yourself that your despondency isn’t reality–it’s only your reaction to reality. When you change your mindset, you force yourself to see the top of the Well. And if you can see it, you can climb to it. To secure the foothold of each step you take, do one more thing.
Devise a real-world action you can take to make the possibility you envisioned a reality.
By identifying an achievable action you can perform immediately to improve the situation causing your despondency, you demonstrate that your envisioned reality isn’t just a fantasy. If you’re despondent about global warming, that doesn’t mean you should set out to single-handedly refreeze the ice caps. Start by turning your heater down a degree, or checking the tire pressure on your car. Your immediate goal isn’t to solve the source of your despondency but to prove to yourself that your hope is rational. Even so, if you take one positive action when you’re worried, you’re doing more than most people do to address scary problems.
Let me give some examples of this process of active hoping. Since the oncoming Trump presidency is forefront in so many people’s minds and anxieties, it makes sense to jump down the particular Hell Well dug by the thought process Trump Elected -> AMERICA IS DEAD. It’s one I fell down myself. I’ve put together three rational counters to that despondency, paired with ways to achieve them. They’re on a separate page, because I don’t want to distract from the larger point that the battle I’m trying to help you win isn’t over America, but over your brain.
It’s not an easy battle. It can be an enormous effort just to redirect your mind away from worry to think rationally. Then once you’ve done that, it still takes a measure of critical thinking and creativity to envision realistic ways for a bad situation to improve. That intellectual effort can be difficult for anyone in the best of times, but it only becomes more difficult when when your mind is tired from worry and focused on imagining the worst.
The good news is the harder you have to work at it, the more you help yourself. Because every moment you spend in the constructive thought of rationally countering your despondency is a moment you’ve spent not worrying. During those moments you gain back control of your mind, and you’re not digging the Well any deeper.
When the constructive thought succeeds and you counter your despondency even briefly, you’ll take a step up the Well. It’s a rare act of power achieved through sheer will, 100% from your own rationality. It makes you stronger. Accomplish it once and you’ll know that you can accomplish it again. Even if your strength falters, you’ll always have the tool you need. Because hope is eternal.
That said: if worry, despondency, sadness, anxiety, or anything similar are hurting your quality of life, seek professional help. If your body isn’t working right, you go to the doctor. So if your brain isn’t working right, go to the doctor. It’s that easy. Talk to your primary care physician, or find help online through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.