In the United States, the richest country in the world, every measure of mental health is plummeting. And have been before the pandemic. In a recent survey CDC entitled, "Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic" a full 10 percent of the U.S. population had seriously considered suicide in the month of June. For 18-24 year olds that number was 25. And 69.9% of 18-24 reported suffering from depressive or anxiety disorders.
So, I'm going to talk about hope. And I'm going to talk about it in a hard-headed practical kind of way. Hope as a tool. Hope as, a crowbar of a kind. A great big unbreakable steel bastard of a prybar. A lever long enough. 25 lbs of cold-forged Hope as a verb. As a thing that happens to other things and leaves them forever changed.
Hope as a four-letter word. An explosive utterance that barks forth from a person in pain or in battle and gives them the strength they need to go on.
I believe that anything that makes you want to abandon hope is a lie. Abandoning Hope is literally the gateway to hell. That's why when Dante wrote the Inferno he made the sign above the gate read, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." Maybe, just maybe, that inscription means not that there is no hope for the damned, but that, if you give up hope you are damned.
But maybe that's not right, exactly. After all hope springs eternal. No, that's not right either. The closest I can get to it is what Emily Dickinson wrote,
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops at all."
We can't stop the bird from singing. Nor can we get rid of the bird, like a bird that flew into an airport terminal during construction, there just seems to be no good way to chase the damn thing out. All we have a is a choice, will we listen to the bird singing or will we listen to something else. Or deny the bird's existence altogether?
Hope man, Hope. Hope Goddamn it! Grab a man by his jacket lapels, shake him vigorously and slap him full across the mouth, then shout it in his face, “Hope goddamn it!”
The modern lie goes something like this. The world is just too big and too complicated and too corrupt and too out of control. There's nothing that I can do. The only way is for leaders to change it from the top-down, and all are leaders are just shit. Just look at all of this awful news I keep doomscrolling by. The world's going to hell, there's no point, no change, no hope.
Yet that bird is still singing.
And there's great reason for hope. Go to ourworldindata.com. See how bad things used to be. See that we're at the pinnacle of human progress. Sure we have problems, but if all you see is the last 5, 10 or 20 years. If all you see is is the three feet of sidewalk in front of you don't see what a remarkable thing we really are. You don't see how far we've come. And how much farther yet we will go. As Ray Bradbury said:
We are the miracle of force and matter making itself over into imagination and will. Incredible. The Life Force experimenting with forms. You for one. Me for another. The Universe has shouted itself alive. We are one of the shouts.
Look at us across 5,000 years. Consider the sacrifices that got us here. Look at child mortality since 1950.
Global population living in extreme poverty since 1977.
Take the U.S.
Everyone who lives in the U.S. is in the wealthiest 1% of people on Earth. Everyone in the United States has daily use of technologies to make their life better than the rich and powerful of 100 years ago could not even have imagined.
Every single one of us is, in a material sense, is better off than the most powerful conquerer in the history of the world.
Then why does everything feel so hopeless?
Lack of context, sure. But I think it's more than that. Learned helplessness. Addictions of all shapes and sizes. Addictions to devices, to substances, to food, to comfort, to distraction to stress hormones, to the news. I do not stand aloof in judgment here. I live in the world. I wrestle with all of these things.
I have been given great talents -- which I have taken some pains to develop, but a lot of the time they feel to me like unmerited gifts of grace. And what have I done with them? Ah, there they are. All the things I haven't written. The books I haven't read. The time I have squandered. All that I could have been and am not.
And now, the voice whispers, you are getting old. You are passing through the gates now, it's not your fault, abandon all hope, ye who enter unto here.
In my soul, the thing with feathers is still singing, but now she seems so far away, for how but how can I deny the rationality of the case brought against me?
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
(I am) not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven,
And, really, when we cut through all the bullshit and poetry, how much earth have I shoveled, and how much heaven have I managed to weave on the loom of my life? Not much.
But still, the bird is singing.
There's this true story about an early mail pilot recounted in Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine Du St. Exupery - the man who wrote The Little Prince. This pilot is carrying mail across the Andes and his plane crashes. He survives, but his leg is broken and it's cold and its snowing. He knows that he's going to die. But he's worried about his pension, because if his body isn't found -- then his wife and child will have to wait 5 years for his pension -- basically for his life insurance to pay out.
So he sees this outcropping of rock a little further down the mountain, and says, well, that place might not be covered by snow -- it's a little bit better, so he hobbles down to that rock and sits down to die.
But while he's sitting there, he sees another rock, a little further down the mountain and since he doesn't have anything else to do -- he hobbles on.
And he repeats this process until he saves himself by walking out of the Andes.
We are all the pilot. And the world is always the plane crash and the wounds and the mountain and the snow. We are all dying and leaving our loved ones behind. And hope, properly understood is not the hope of rescue or being reunited with your family or that everything will work out or be perfect. Hope, hope as a verb, hope as that big son-of-bitch of a prybar that you can use to can change the world, is as simple crawling to the next outcropping of rock you can see.
You know this, because there's a thing with feathers singing in your soul. You can think of something that you could be doing that could make your situation better that you're not doing. Not a big thing, but a small thing. A think you could do or say right now. Hope is the doing of it even when you don’t fully understand how it will work. Even, and especially when, it feels silly.
It's just one step at a time, a little better and a little better and a little better. And every time I've done this, in my life, I've gotten out of the mountains. Sure, there's no guarantee that you don't fall off a cliff along the way, or get caught in an avalanche. But, and this is the point, if the plane crash hasn't killed you, this approach gives you the greatest chance of success.
As I said, I'm writing about all of this today, because of the suicide numbers in that CDC survey.
Now, I have seriously considered suicide, both in the abstract and the concrete on more than one occasion. I think the examined life pretty much requires it. Most recently in 2013. My son was a year old. It was a Friday night. My wife and I had gotten in a horrible fight -- we were both exhausted. And there was alcohol involved. In the aftermath, I was thinking about divorce and how it would wreck me and be horrible and what it might do to my child and generally how just awful it would be. And then this thought popped into my head. Better to kill yourself than to go through that.
Abandon all hope.
And it stopped me right in my tracks. I remember it clearly because I had gone in search of something to eat. Which means I got to have this existential crisis standing in the pantry. I don't write absurd things. Life writes absurd things, I file reports.
And I'm just standing in the pantry and I'm scared. Because I'm trapped in there with a guy who's literally trying to kill me. And his line of thinking is making an awful lot of sense. It seems perfectly rational and utilitarian. I couldn't come up with an argument against it. And that was terrifying. So, right out loud, I said this, "We could do that. I've got a pistol upstairs. It's not a complicated procedure, but it's pretty irreversible. BUT, is there anything else you could think of we could try first?"
And I stood in my pantry and thought of things. In essence, I looked around to see if there was an outcropping of rock that I could make it to. And when I got to five of them. I grabbed a fistful of pretzels and went back to watching T.V.
And the next morning, when my wife said, "I think we have a big problem" I said, "I don't think we do." I said, "I think we have a small problem that might be easy to fix."
She disagreed. She said that we were fighting all the time and we would have to go see a counselor and even then, it didn't seem good.
I said, "I don't think so." Then I told her about the pantry. She became very concerned. And then I said, "Before we get divorced, is there anything else we can think of to do." I asked, "Do we ever fight in the morning?"
She said no.
I asked, "Do we ever fight on a Wednesday evening?"
She said no.
I said, "It's always Friday night. Because it's the end of the week and we're both exhausted. Because we've got this baby and we're both working. And I think you're doing too much. You've got that terrible commute and you're getting up extra early to take the boy to preschool. So what I would like to do is take some of these things off your plate and see if it gets any better
Because I think the problem is we're just tired. "
And she said, "Do you really think that's the problem?"
I said, "Well, the world is filled with problems. But that one we can fix. We can also do something about the pretzels."
And she said, "You got drunk and ate all the pretzels again?"
St. Augustine wrote
Hope has two beautiful daughters; Their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.
Augustine died in 430 AD. Since Hope is eternal, I think she's had time to have at least two more daughters. Increment and Perseverance. Increment, who tells you to do the smallest easiest thing you can think of first. And Perseverance who tells you to keep doing things long enough to see some of them will work.
This is hope as a verb. And hope isn't rational, it is a feeling, small at first and then powerful. A thing with feathers singing quietly at first and then as one of the loudest things in the universe. A signing bird that becomes Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
Because even the most humble seed can crack concrete when it knows that the sun will shine, the rain will come.
But this is not why hope is powerful. Hope is powerful because rings other people like a bell. It is infectious in the best sense of the word. Paulo Cohelo summed it up like this:
When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.
But here's the catch, for this kind of thinking to work, you have to focus on you first. The world is a mess. Yes, it is. And it always has been and always will be. Oh, we've made it so much better, but it's a mess. But I don't think we can fix it directly. I don't think leaders or politicians can fix it from the top down. But I think we can fix it.
Because if we each become better than we are, everything around each of us becomes better too. And I think that's so powerful that nothing can stop it.
And that idea gives me hope.