They say hope floats, which is important to know, because when we’re struggling to stay above water, sometimes hope is all there is to hold onto. Hope’s buoyancy makes it like love and faith – precious commodities in life that prevent us from sinking into the abyss when hardship threatens to pull us under. Hope carries us through and gives us strength to ride out the tide.
One of hope’s peculiar qualities is that it is easily lost, especially by those who need it the most. In 2021, a Harvard study found that over half of young people ages 18-29 had reported feeling hopeless for several days in the recent past (we can safely assume that those numbers have not improved in the last two years). The figures among youth in Europe look strikingly similar. It’s strange and sad to think that the portion of the population with the most to look forward to in life would have the hardest time seeing it that way. Yet, so many of our emerging adults are tragically mired in a dour perspective toward the future.
As the above research suggests, we are all likely to meet people grappling with hopelessness, that feeling of stuckness that covers us like a thick blanket, leaving us cloaked in darkness and despair. Perhaps we’ve even met ourselves in this state. How can we help those who are struggling to find hope? How can we give them back what they have lost?
The power of right now
As always, the Hebrew language is a trove of wisdom with insights for life in the very words themselves. The Hebrew word for “hope,” “tikvah,” contains the word for “line,” “kav.” A line is a mark that extends beyond one point. A line only exists when a single speck joins up with the rest of a larger picture. For a line to become what it is, a solitary point must be strung along further and not remain stuck in just one spot.
This is hope, the belief that life consists of more than one point and that something better can come. Because the true pain of hopelessness is not in how things feel right now, but in the thought that they will not get better going forward. In this sense, hope is not a feeling but a way of thinking. A person suffering from hopelessness perceives that this is all there is and will ever be. It’s as if time has threatened to stop short and keep us in our current pain for perpetuity. Hopelessness erases the future.
In my work with people, I have experienced times when holding onto hope comes down to just two words: right now. The ability to reflect that “things are incredibly difficult right now” opens the possibility that what we see in front of us is not all there can be. Because tomorrow will come, and it may bring light that today has snuffed out. If hopelessness robs people of their future, giving others hope means safeguarding a perspective in which the future remains. By validating and reassuring our friends, our kids, and even ourselves that things are hard right now, we are holding onto optimism that our loved ones may have felt around for but were as of yet unable to find. We are giving them back the hope they have lost.
False hope is not the answer, either. We must not make promises of a future we cannot guarantee. None of us can predict what will be, but we also don’t need to. It’s not necessary to know what the future will bring to know that there will be one. That knowledge alone may be enough to lift a person out of despair just a little bit.
The tribe of Dan
Interestingly, among all of Yaakov Avinu’s sons, Dan was given the blessing of hope. When Yaakov spoke to his sons before his passing, it was only to Dan that he said, “For your salvation do I hope, Hashem (Bereishit 49:18).” Rav Aharon Lopiansky points out that in Sefer Bamidbar, the tribe of Dan is described as the “me’asef l’chol hamachanot,” the collector of the entire camp. Dan was positioned at the back of the Jewish encampment in the desert. As Rashi explains, their job was to collect lost items and return them to where they belonged. This task went for people too – when a stray soul separated from the tribe, Dan was the one to bring it home. It’s important to note that Dan’s symbol is a snake – a line. Dan upheld a line of vision from the tail end of the nation all the way to the front – they had to see what was yet ahead of them. Dan kept the Jewish People together by insisting on always looking forward.
Dr. Chan Hillman points out that hope is a social gift in that it is restored to us via our connections with one another. When Jews in the desert lost their way or felt they couldn’t go any further, Dan was there to pick them up from behind. As long as Dan had their backs, they knew they had someone to lean on and were going to be alright.
When we help people look forward to better times, we are not minimizing how bad things feel now. Hope for the future does not require us to invalidate the present. We don’t need to tell people that what they’re feeling isn’t so bad or to downplay their pain in any way. We can be fully present with someone who is hurting while simultaneously providing a context within which that pain may not last forever. While the present sometimes appears bleak, we can help people see that there was a past and there will be a future as well.
Hope and Channukah
We’re celebrating the holiday of Channukah, a ray of hope in a season of darkness. Channukah marks our victory over the Greeks, who sought to extinguish our worldview in favor of their own. The Greeks were masters of the material world – they studied it, idolized it, and devoted their lives to glorifying it. They viewed the human mind and body as the pinnacle of existence – an outlook that directly opposes the Jewish approach, where man exists in the service of something higher than himself. The Greeks maintained that what we can wrap our heads around is all there is, whereas Jews believe in transcending the material in favor of a life powered by the spirit, that spark of the divine within that allows us to tap into an elevated existence. We look at what is above; they trained their focus on what is below.
If hope is about keeping an eye on the future, materialism would be its undoing. The nature of material goods is to pull us into themselves. They tempt us to focus solely on the now, on what is immediately before us, and to believe momentarily that this is all there is. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, enshrined this philosophy in the well-known phrase, “carpe diem,” seize the day. For the Greeks, all that mattered was our immediate experience. The future was not nearly as important as the ever-present now.
Jews, by distinction, are always mindful of the future. In stark contrast to the Harvard study cited above, which might partially explain why young people in the West are less likely than ever to want to have children (who wants to bring kids into a world without hope?), Jews around the world, and particularly in Israel, display higher fertility rates than any other people in the Western world. A more robust indicator of hope would be hard to find. We bring children into the world because we are optimistic about their future. We truly envision a world that looks better than the one we have today and are devoted to making it so. We impart values to our progeny and empower them to spread the light we have ignited them with. In a direct rebuttal of the Greek approach, we tie our optimism for the future to our link with the divine. Because having faith in something higher provides hope for something further.
Israel and hope
The Jewish nation is living through a time when hope has never been more necessary. But also never more offered. All around the streets of Israel, Jews inspire one another to hope for better days. As the President of Israel accurately reflected just recently: “I see an Israel that is thriving in spite of it all. As I speak, our sons and daughters in uniform are on the frontlines fighting to protect us. Israelis of every background are showing up for each other in remarkable ways. Jewish communities across the world are mobilizing with unprecedented energy… Am Yisrael Chai (the nation of Israel lives).”
We are a nation of people who give hope to one another. Who knows if we would have made it this far otherwise? Through our many years of exile and persecution, we have always excelled at the art of lifting each other up through hopeful words and deeds. As we see around us and throughout the world, today is no different.
We will undoubtedly continue to inspire each other and ultimately reach a brighter future. I look forward to the radio broadcaster’s voice, who signs off each morning with the simple words, “Have a good day, Israel. Better days will surely come.”