When he asked the question, none of us guessed the right answer.
Dr. Chan Hellman, a professor of social work at the University of Oklahoma and Director of The Hope Research Center, posed that question to the attendees of the Mississippi Commission on Children's Justice (MCCJ) the week of October 20, 2020.
The question he asked everyone was, "What is the opposite of hope?"
He had been invited by MCCJ and other state leaders to help Mississippi learn how to better engage people, especially children in foster care, with an attitude and expectation of hope.
You're probably thinking, "Yeah, Mississippi definitely needs more hope and lot of other things!" And you would be partially right.
It turns out everyone could benefit from a new or better understanding of what 'hope' really means. In fact, given how many people suffer from childhood trauma and how many people struggle throughout their lives to attain their goals or have the willpower to keep going or the methods necessary for attaining success, we could all use more hope.
The definition, as defined and practiced and taught by Dr. Hellman is:
"Hope is the belief that your future can be brighter and better than your past and that you actually have a role to play in making it better."
Most of the time, we think of hope as nothing more than a wish: I hope you feel better, I hope today is a good day, I hope my favorite professional team wins, I hope I can shed these few extra pounds.
Instead, real hope is an action and there’s a lot of science to support that claim.
Hope is all about intention and how we act based on what we believe, not what we know. For example, we all know that too much sugar is not good for us, but we keep reaching for that comfort food because we believe it will make us feel better when our painful emotions are hurting us.
Perhaps isn't surprising, but as humans we need our goals must motivate us to take action. We need them to excite us enough so that we will want to make a difference.
Hopeful people more easily see the path or pathway they need to take in order to achieve their goals. Each time we take a step forward towards meeting our goal our hope rises.
Yet, we need one more thing to add to our goals and pathways: willpower. The challenge is we only have so much willpower (energy) on any given day. If we spend our energy or willpower purposelessly, then we won't have enough to help us move forward on the really hard goals. It’s at this time in our lives when we really need that strong network and positive relationships to help encourage and support us.
We can be angry at ourselves and we can even feel despair over our situation. Any of those emotions and countless others are fine because with any of those we still have hope! It may seem overwhelming, but hope is still there. We can still make progress and achieve our goals!
It is only when we reach one emotional state where we really are in a crisis that, to us, has no discernable pathway to success. It turns out, the opposite of hope is apathy.
It's at that point when hope leaves us and we no longer care about the outcome because we believe the outcome has already been decided: so, why even try?
If you deal with people who have been or are currently in a state of crisis or trauma, it's hard to get them to focus on a long-term goal when their short-term goals of trying to find food or avoid being sexually abused or simply survive for one more day.
Need a good example? Think about children in foster care who are repeatedly placed in new homes over and over and over again. Dr. Hellman shared the average number of placements in Oklahoma of foster care children is 15.
We claim to want to know not, "what's wrong with you," but "what happened to you?" But we shouldn’t stop there!
What people need to hear from us during their times of hurt or despair is "here's what is right about you!"
"You get the best efforts from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within them." - Bob Nelson
Hope as an action is a fascinating subject that I'm convinced fits in perfectly with our desire to help others deal with the devastating challenges of trauma.
I highly recommend you read Dr. Hellman's book whom he co-authored with Casey Gwinn titled, Hope Rising: How the Science of HOPE Can Change Your Life.