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Practicing Hope in a Hopeless Time

Cynthia Degnan, Phd, MSW, LCSW, Steadfast Center Intake and Trauma Therapist

Cynthia Degnan, PhD, MSW, LCSW

Intake and Trauma Therapist

Almost every time I’ve sat down to write a post for this blog, I’ve had an idea in mind that more conventionally relates to trauma therapy, but I find that I can’t turn my attention away from the unceasing traumas erupting in the world around me. And this is what the last two years (or five and a half, depending on where you start the clock on the Tire Fire Age) have felt like for a lot of us, and what life has always felt like for others. It is sometimes hard to focus on “BDSM, Consent, and Trauma” or “Triggers as Opportunities” (both blog posts forthcoming… at some point) when it feels like the wheels are coming off the cart.

So this will be a blog post about hope, something I am struggling to access following multiple mass shootings, legal and cultural attacks on marginalized communities ("#ProtectTransKids", for starters), and the ongoing pandemic. It is hard to be hopeful right now. And a call for hope can feel like a platitude that encourages us to ignore or avoid the pain we experience and witness.

It’s important to name toxic positivity* for what it is: an attempt to paper over real pain, grief, and suffering with positive thinking. It is an avoidance strategy that can help us feel better momentarily but makes authentic growth in ourselves or connection with others difficult to experience.

The alternative to avoiding toxic positivity, however, is not to dwell in fear and helplessness. This is where abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba’s insight that “hope is a discipline” can be enormously helpful. In an interview published in her book We Do This ’til We Free Us,** she says, “hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism.Her activism focuses on dismantling the prison industrial complex, a goal that she acknowledges is out of reach in her lifetime. And that recognition, she says, is “freeing” because it allows you “to actually be able to do the work that’s necessary as you see it and contribute in the ways you see fit.” Her hope is not a feeling that arises from the likelihood of success; it is an intentional practice that motivates her to play her role in a movement that is too expansive to be located in any one person, place, or time.

So what might it look like to practice hope? Here are a few things that I find helpful, presented in linear form despite the fact that this is not a linear experience:

  • Feel the feelings There is no denying that the world is scary and overwhelming. Practicing hope is not about leaving these feelings behind. Instead it is about accessing hope alongside the challenging feelings. Trying to push down emotions that we would rather not experience keeps us stuck battling our emotions instead of taking action for things we believe in. Susan A. David writes about the utility of emotions in her book Emotional Agility***. She reminds us that when we feel anger, fear, or helplessness, those emotions are telling us something important about what we value and how we might act in accordance with those values. Sometimes I think about our options in responding to challenging emotions as similar to being lost in the woods. We can scramble around in panic trying to just not be lost and thereby get even more lost, or we can sit down, accept that we are lost, review our steps in getting here, and make a conscious decision that will help get us to safety. Hope as a discipline requires first being with exactly what is so that we can best decide how to move toward what could be.

  • Assess values Expanding on David’s insight about emotions and values, our core values are, I believe, one of the most grounding things we can learn about ourselves. One of the main tenants of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is that we lead happier and more fulfilled lives when our behavior is driven by our deeply held values, rather than our desires or fears. Knowing our core values is key for practicing hope because it gives us information about where and how we can be effective in our actions, and how we can sustain the work we choose to do. There are many values assessment tools, including online surveys, that can help develop this insight. I found this one particularly illuminating:

  • Access Gratitude A key part of practicing hope for me is practicing gratitude. This is another word that shows up a lot in toxic positivity, so I want to restate that the goal is not to replace thoughts connected to worry, fear, or anger with thoughts of gratitude. It is to be able to hold gratitude amidst the challenging emotions so that we don’t get stuck in them. Gratitude is a recognition that there are things worth taking action to preserve, and it can help create a vision for the possibility of a better world. (I have to say, because I heard Samwise’s voice in my head as I wrote the last sentence, that you should all be impressed that I restrained myself from writing a whole blog post using Lord of the Rings to illustrate what it could mean to imagine hope as a discipline. But if you love that story as much as I do you will no doubt notice parallel themes.)

  • Take action Rebecca Solnit writes in her Guardian essay “Hope is an Embrace of the Unknown”**** that Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.” Acting on hope is the key difference to me between hope as an emotion and hope as a discipline. Sometimes when I’m really struggling, I replace the word “discipline” with “responsibility.” Giving up on hope is giving in to the hubris that tells me that I know what the outcome will be and then just letting it unfold. Giving up on hope is giving up on my responsibility to try to influence the outcome and create a more just world in which everyone can thrive.

Feeling helpless, hopeless, overwhelmed, and terrified in the world in which we are currently living is a natural, valid response. Trauma comes with all of these feelings because at the core of all trauma is a denial of agency over our bodies and circumstances. And a key part of processing and healing trauma is finding ways to restore that agency. Hope as discipline provides a path to that restoration. We might not always feel hope, but we can act on it. And by acting on it we can create it, for ourselves and others. It won’t end trauma; as with Kaba’s abolitionist project that is a goal for generations, not moments. But it can move us in the right direction, and that is far from nothing.


*For a more thorough breakdown of toxic positivity:




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