How often have I heard people in my office say, “I have lost all hope” or “We have given up hope” as a way of summarizing their experience at this moment: “We have no more energy to go forward”. People feel trapped, unable to move on, frightened by what inevitably seems to happen – to them, to a loved one, to their relationships or to the circumstances of their lives that they had taken for so long as a given.
During the winter season (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) people light candles as a symbol of hope against the increasing darkness and cold of winter. Lightening candles many of us commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over their oppressors or the birth in Palestine of a child that was to bring liberation to the world or we celebrate African cultural and community traditions as inspiring symbols of hope and renewal. Since ancient times the fragile light of candles also reminds us of the winter solstice when ever so slightly the “sol invictus” (the “invincible sun” celebrated by the Romans) turns and embarks anew on its yearly journey. A new year begins.
We cannot live without hope. Hope is the inner life force that sustains us while we are moving forward, that makes us create alternative ways of living and enables us to envision solutions to problems that seem intractable. Hope fortifies us to survive traumatic hurt and loss and to rebuild and heal relationships. Hope is as indispensable as the air we breathe.
Hidden underneath many of the conversations at Princeton Family Institute with people who come to ask us for assistance are two questions:
From where comes the life restoring and life sustaining energy of hope? and
How can we as a family or a couple or how can I as an individual rekindle and restore hope in our or my life?
1 Sankofa: “To return and get it”
In their traditional weaving patterns the Ashanti people of West Africa (many of whom were enslaved and brought to the US) have preserved the ancient symbol of a mythical bird flying forward with its head turned backward. The egg in its mouth represents the “gems” or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based. The bird is often associated with the African proverb: “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from.” (Learn more about this symbol at: http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/literature/sankofa.cfm.)
I would add: You can’t muster the strength to go forward unless you reconnect with where you came from. You can’t reenergize and experience hope unless you remember people from your family and from your community who have lived and hoped before you. You can’t know the direction of the path you are on unless you hear and listen to the voices from the past and unless you let yourself be guided by people who stood for hope. They can speak to you with authenticity because they did not lose hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Looking back to go forward is essential to generating hope for another reason: Nations, communities, families, and individuals are profoundly influenced (and sometimes trapped) in their ability to create hope and to decide on the path that is right for them by events and decisions that happened in the past. At the core of many Greek tragedies or Shakespearean plays lies the conviction that what occurs to people in the present can only be understood if the audience or the person witnessing the unfolding of the fateful actions does not remain blind (like the hero), but can appreciate how much the drama is preconfigured by the actions, relational patterns, sufferings, and ethical dilemmas of previous generations. Appreciative public remembering in a family or community of events that caused the suffering of people who lived before us is a crucial process not only for individuals, couples and families, but also for larger communities and nations. Paradoxically, as we as families, communities, nations remember the past and honor those who suffered and died for a better future, we create the conditions for hope to strengthen and regain its life sustaining energy in our lives.
2 “You can and should go home again” – families, couples, individuals in relational therapy
As people narrate their experiences in their conversations with us, we discover together how much their dilemma, pain, hopelessness, anger or inability to hear each other has to do with family legacies, interpersonal patterns of relating, injustices, unresolved conflicts or unacknowledged personal sacrifices that had been playing out in the past. Destructive relational patterns repeat until they are acknowledged and healed. What may often seem like a family “curse” can only be forgiven and “lifted” if past injustice is redressed and past sacrifices are remembered and recognized. Family ‘ghosts’ will stop haunting everybody and can be laid to rest as family members reconcile with their own past or deconstruct self-serving myths and accept the complexity of uncomfortable truths that were hidden for so long.
Hope, then, is gaining strength and can energize us on our path forward despite the hurdles and uncertainties in our present day life, if we gather the courage to explore the hidden truths and unspoken legacies in our family’s or community’s past. Often we discover unknown strengths and signs of resilience among family or community members and we learn to appreciate and honor those who lived before us.
Or we actually go home and meet with parents, siblings, or grandparents and (guided by the conversations with the therapist) begin to address with them the narratives that formed our childhood experiences. How multi-faceted and rich everybody’s memories are and how liberating, even if painful, it is to be able to reconcile and reconnect with family members! Invisible bonds of loyalty and relational guilt can be untied and forgiven in a mutual process of validation and acceptance. We need this unconstrained openness and relational connectedness so we can develop hope that propels us forward. The therapist is the witness who lends credibility to the process, facilitates and supports the conversation and accompanies us on our journey of discovery.
Finally, to experience hope’s life restoring and life sustaining energy and to find the direction of the path into the future that is uniquely ours, we need to go back beyond our family’s or community’s past and search for the voices of the people who are most important to us. Here we face an existential and ethical choice. Across perhaps many generations we can let ourselves be drawn into a conversation with humankind’s outstanding minds and thinkers who stood in their lives and historical contexts for hope and resilience against all odds. What else could give us more hope than learning from the sages, prophets, philosophers, poets or human innovators whose ideas keep enriching and questioning us. And how empowering to hear the stories of ordinary people who suffered or sacrificed themselves so that the people we love would have a better chance at a fulfilled and joyful life.
The therapists of Princeton Family Institute wish you and your loved ones a New Year with renewed and strengthened hope that is grounded in the wisdom of the great voices of the past!
Norbert A. Wetzel