Medical Examiner

How to Hold On to Hope

This horrible week was particularly stressful for minorities. A therapist who works with patients experiencing profound injustice and pervasive trauma explains how to cope.

The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale looks on as sisters Michelle Edralin, 12, and Nicole Edralin, 15, react with immigration rights proponents outside the U.S. Supreme Court after it upheld President Donald Trump's travel ban on Tuesday.
The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale looks on as sisters Michelle Edralin, 12, and Nicole Edralin, 15, react with immigration rights proponents outside the U.S. Supreme Court after it upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban on Tuesday. Leah Millis/Reuters

If you’re feeling sad most of the time, having trouble eating and sleeping, not seeing your friends, not doing much of anything, feeling hopeless or helpless, you could see a psychiatrist or a therapist like myself. You could tell that therapist how you were feeling and receive a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. Feeling more overwhelming anxiety? There’s a diagnosis for that too, a number of psychotropic medications that might help treat the symptoms, and several evidence-based therapies that can address the underlying thought patterns that perpetuate such suffering. When it comes to existential terror, though, there is no recommended treatment, no medication to lessen that ever-encroaching sense of despair over our political future.

The resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy is the latest threat to the health of our democracy. Suddenly LGBTQ rights and access to abortion, among many other hard-won gains, seem vulnerable. People are stressed out: At my clinic, the waiting list to see a therapist for individual therapy has hovered around 150 people since the election. Therapists have been coping with this elevated level of stress for years already (and we’re not exempt from despair ourselves—working in the field of mental health does not exempt you from its struggles any more than being a car mechanic means you never need an oil change). But I have worked with clients experiencing profound injustice and pervasive trauma, and this has taught me some skills for carrying on when all seems hopeless.

The first thing is the most obvious: Make time for taking care of yourself. My job involves containing feelings of deep despair, and it is all too easy to carry that despair home with me. But if I spend all of my free time marinating in the problems of my patients, I lose my perspective and thus my ability to effectively help them. Similarly, we gain little by staying glued to Twitter or constantly refreshing our news apps. This is not a time for ignorance, sure, but neither is it a time to try to take on the entire world’s pain minute after minute. If you have any religious or spiritual beliefs, now is the time to lean into them. If not, that’s fine, look for other ways to make life meaningful. Get out into nature, practice meditation, read a novel. What works for you may not work for me, but disconnect and give yourself some time to breathe.

Now is also the time to find ways where you can make a meaningful difference. There is little most of us can do to influence the next Supreme Court pick. Yes, we can make phone calls and writing letters and yes, maybe taking to the streets. But most of us are far more likely to make effective change in our own neighborhoods. Because of the sheer number of groups Trump threatens, chances are there is someone in your backyard who is more terrified than you are. Many of us are beginning to feel like we don’t recognize this country, but people of color and other minority groups have felt like that for most, if not all, of our country’s history. Now is the time to work together in solidarity with them and to open our eyes beyond our own experience. Find the refugees, the undocumented immigrants, the trans teen who needs someone to listen. Support them individually and partner with organizations that fight for their rights, whether it’s an immigrant rights group or your local LGBTQ center.

It also helps to gain some perspective. America has always been a contradiction in terms. The same man who wrote some of the most stirring words of the Declaration of Independence believed they only applied to white male property owners and was a slaveholder. The highest aspirations of our democracy have not been realized for most of our history; it is no aberration that the first black president was followed by the first white supremacist president. We must learn to see representative democracy not as something that was enacted with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but a hope to which we have often aspired and seldom reached. This is meant not to spur us even further into despair but rather to reduce our own myopia and realize that our struggle is nothing new.

Hope can seem like a radical, even foolish, act. In times of despair, it can seem naive or dangerous to think that things may get better. But we fundamentally misunderstand hope if we take it to be an assertion that everything is going to work out in the end, sooner rather than later. To be hopeful is not to believe in the myth of continual human progress but to acknowledge that the future remains unwritten and we have the ability to play a part in its making. As I tell my clients who are in the midst of the black valleys of depression, you do not have to be able to see your future for there to be one.

In my Episcopal tradition, we say the creeds, our historical statements of belief, together most Sundays. The purpose of this is not to ensure bland allegiance to rote doctrine because on any given week there are statements or clauses which some of us may find difficult, even unbelievable, but chances are there is someone else in the congregation who does believe and can carry the rest of us along. Hope to carry on can seem out of reach these days. Find others who are willing to wrestle with these times alongside you, and hold one another up when it seems just too difficult.

Those who are in power depend upon our despair in order to maintain that power. Despair closes off the future, making us feel assured that all of our attempts at building a more just and humane world are doomed. Hope holds the door open, if ever so slightly, to the chance that it could be different. Do everything you can to keep it cracked open.