5 Ways to Tap into Hope as a Defiant Superpower against Despair

I have often said, “Hope is the antidote to suicide.”

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I realize that the word “hope” – like “love” and “support” and “leadership” – is often experienced as cliché, having lost its power and meaning from overuse. I would like to reclaim it and use it like Wonder Woman’s shield (goodness I love that movie) to defiantly deflect pessimism, bitterness and negativity coming at us from all angles.

As advocates for suicide prevention and mental health promotion, we must be warriors of hope.  Now is the perfect time to explore how we can learn to build hope as a practice – like pieces of protective armor that protect us as we forge our way onward to the frontiers of what is possible.

I’ve been thinking about this blog for a while. Mulling over the religious teachings about hope that often inspire many of us during the high holy days and daily spiritual rituals. For those of us who have experienced loss – suicide, freedom, divorce, financial problems, or otherwise – holidays and other times of celebration can drive isolation and despair. These teachings help some of us reconnect to communities that can hold our hope for us until we can feel it again. I’ve also been thinking about how some psychological practices like mindfulness, gratitude and cognitive reframing can help us experience hope when we are in dark places.

Today I went to my faith community[1] to find my own personal grounding and to be inspired and feel connected during this difficult week – the week of my brother’s death anniversary. The theme of the service coincidentally was “hope.” The first reading began…

The Gates of Hope By Reverend Victoria Safford[2]

 Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—
Not the prudent gates of Optimism,
Which are somewhat narrower.
Not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
Nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness,
Which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(People cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through)
Nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of
“Everything is gonna’ be all right.”
But a different, sometimes lonely place,
The place of truth-telling,
About your own soul first of all and its condition.
The place of resistance and defiance,
The piece of ground from which you see the world
Both as it is and as it could be
As it will be;
The place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
But the joy of the struggle.
And we stand there, beckoning and calling,
Telling people what we are seeing
Asking people what they see.

The service got me thinking about how each of us can cultivate hope like a secret superpower against despair.


After the service, I found a quite niche in the back of the child education wing of the church. I lit a candle in a chalice made by one of the youth, and under the glow of the stained glass window, wrote these ideas on hope.


As we are trying to fend off the hopelessness that pull so many into darkness of depression; hope is the flicker of light in that darkness that maybe, just maybe there is something on the other side of our despair.


I love this quote by Robert Ingersoll and use it often in my keynotes, “In the night of darkness, hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”

That is how we go on. That is why we come together. That is why we connect to things bigger than ourselves. Hope is the star in our darkness.

Julie Neraas, in her book “Apprenticed to Hope: A Sourcebook for Difficult Times” talks about different types of hope. We can hope the traffic won’t make us late for our job interview or that it won’t be too cold to enjoy the football game. Or we can have deeper hopes that wars will end and justice restored. Some hopes are helpful, others are distractions. I have adapted parts of her list to create some daily practices that can build up our hope armor when we are faced with the powerful forces of depression, oppression and what sometimes feels like a world gone mad.

Let’s think about hope as a verb rather than an elusive, nebulous ghost. We can hope better by asking ourselves, “How can we consciously cultivate hope?” We can learn to hope better by engaging in behavioral strategies that differentiate healthy optimism from delusional grandiosity or dangerous hopelessness.

1.     Choosing Hope – Choosing hope is a defiant life stance – sometimes against all odds. Neuroscience shows that our innate bias toward optimism is good for us. According to cognitive neuroscientist and author of “The Science of Optimism,” Tali Sharot,[3] 80% of us have this bias where we overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen to us. This bias leads to success in athletics, business, politics – even our heath. Greater optimism predicts better health and better health predicts greater optimism. Thus, we can identify thought processes that choose hopeful interpretations about a situation or person. For example, when our partner snaps out in anger towards us we can say to ourselves, “I am choosing to see that this person’s behavior is not a reflection on me but rather an outcome of this particular circumstance.”

2.     Imagining Hope: Our anticipation of good things happening to us makes us happy – sometimes even happier than the actual good event. This is the power of the affirmation we give ourselves of a future possibility or the vision statement of a company. “I imagine a world where XYZ is possible or where I am able to XYZ.” Most kids come into the world hopeful and curious. How can we tap into that childlike sense of awe and infinite ability to imagine what is possible? How can we play with creative – even intentionally unrealistic – ideas of hope to inspire action? How can we “wave a magic wand” where resources, time and other worldly constraints were not an issue and life is how we would like it to be. If that vision is what we would consider “100” on a scale from 0 to 100, where are we today? If we say maybe we are only at 10 – what can we imagine 20 feeling like?

3.     Borrowing Hope – When we can’t see hope for ourselves, sometimes others can see it for us. Can we find people we trust to surround ourselves with who can steward our hope until we reclaim it? Most of us need at least one person in our lives who can say, “You. Got. This.” Or even better “We. Got. This.”

4.     Spreading Hope. Hope works best when it’s something we can do together. This is why advocacy groups and faith communities can spark a sense of hope that is contagious. When we stand shoulder to shoulder with others, the battle for a better future seems less daunting than when we are alone.

5.     Persevering Hope – This hope is based on a belief that the “long-arc of history bends toward justice” – the idea that fighting for good outcomes is worthwhile even if it doesn’t result immediately in what’s right for the individual or the group. This form of hope helps us cope with disappointment and the vulnerability we feel when things don’t work out the way we would like them to.

For more on the latest research on hope and optimism, I encourage you to listen to these scientists from the “Hope and Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations” project funded by the John Templeton Foundation (www.hopeoptimism.com).


[1] This blog was inspired in part by the December 3rd, 2017 sermon by Reverend Wendy Williams of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado.

[2] Safford, V. (2015, April 19). Gates of hope. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved on December 3, 2017 from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_gates_of_hope

[3] Sharot, T. (2012). The optimism bias. TED2012. Retrieved on December 3, 2017 from https://www.ted.com/talks/tali_sharot_the_optimism_bias?utm_campaign=tedspread--b&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

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