A few weeks ago I was chatting with a friend about hope. She expressed that she doesn’t have a great relationship with hope. “Hope hurts,” she said. “It sets you up to be disappointed and it keeps you from dealing with reality.” (I’m paraphrasing, but this is the sense I got from her words).

She reminded me of a scene from one of my favourite movies, The Shawshank Redemption.

There is some truth in the statement that hope is dangerous. When our hopes are dashed we can end up broken. And when our hopes remain unfulfilled we can cling to them long after we should have let them go. So how do we know when we should stop waiting, let go of our hope, and move on? There is no simple answer to these questions, but here are my thoughts.

DASHED HOPES

A few weeks ago I wrote about the gift of waiting and the joy and life we can find when we enter into the anticipation of waiting in hope. In response to that post, one of my readers asked this questions:

At present I’m encountering many people who have been waiting in anticipation for a time when they can be with beloved family and friends. They have waited; and watched and hoped and prayed.

And now, after kindling the anticipation for months and months many have had to cancel their plans. And go back to waiting. But now their waiting is no longer coloured by anticipation and hope. Their waiting has become bitter, and their ability to rekindle hope is stunted.

I’m wondering if you or others in this group can give us some help with how to wait in this specific situation?

GRIEVING THE LOSS OF HOPE

This expresses how devastating it can be when waiting hurts. It speaks into how dangerous hope can be. This question relates to what happens when our hopes are dashed and I think my response in the comments will be the best way for me to address it:

I think the first step for me is to recognise that unfulfilled hope is a very real and deep grief. And so the pain of that grief needs to be processed thoroughly and well in ways that will be unique to each individual. Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief (and death and dying) come to mind here, and we need to recognise that these stages aren’t linear, but different responses that happen in different, even chaotic, ways for different people. We can’t move to renewed hope unless we do this work of processing our grief at unfulfilled hope.

And then, I believe, there comes a time when we have to acknowledge that we don’t do hope perfectly. Sometimes good and legitimate hopes are unfulfilled. Sometimes we hope for the wrong things. Either way we need to learn to let go of hopes that no longer offer us strength and anticipation but that are dragging us into despair because they can’t or won’t ever be fulfilled. Or because—as in the scenarios you describe—they are delayed too long. That doesn’t mean we can’t necessarily renew hope in the future. It just means that we need to—as part of our grieving—let go of what continues to hurt us. Easier said than done, I know. But it is a necessary step. And then we can renew hope in a way that takes the painful experience of our past hope into account and transcends it.

WAITING NO MORE

But there is another aspect to this question of how to handle waiting when it hurts: how do we know when to release a hope that just won’t ever be fulfilled? And how do we determine whether it is a hope that just needs us to wait a bit longer, or one that won’t ever come to pass? Once again, there is no perfect response to these questions, but here are some suggestions:

  • The first place to check when we’re trying to discern whether it’s worth continuing our waiting or not is our own hearts. When the waiting begins to weigh us down, break our hearts, or lead us into despair, it’s probably time to let go. When we are still filled with anticipation and joy at the thought of our hope being fulfilled, even if it’s taking much longer than we expected or want, it is probably not damaging for us to keep waiting for a while.
  • The second place to check is with the other people who are involved in our waiting. If the fulfilment of our hopes depends on the actions of other people then it’s best for us to check whether they are able, willing, or likely to fulfil their part. And if it gets to the point when we can see that they aren’t able to do what is needed, then we will be best served if we let our hopes go.
  • The third thing to check is the world around us. When circumstances that we can’t change block the fulfilment of our hopes, then it’s wise to let go and stop waiting. That’s the case with those mentioned above whose plans to reconnect with family were scuttled by the pandemic.
  • The last thing to keep in mind for me is that when one hope dies it can always be replaced by a new hope. This is not meant to short-circuit the grieving process, or make light of the deep pain when our waiting seems to have been futile. We need to acknowledge and process the grief and pain well. But if we are to ensure that we aren’t completely destroyed by our lost hopes, we need to try and keep open the possibility that we will return to hope and wait again with renewed anticipation and joy. And if we can find our way back to this place, it can bring with it tremendous healing.

FINDING OUR WAY

Waiting can hurt. Hope can be dangerous. But so can life and love and joy and peace. There is no human state that will never have the potential for both laughter and tears. We all experience the pain and we all find our way through it, for better or worse. But I believe that, if we make waiting an intentional practice, we can navigate both the joy and the grief and find a deeper, richer life in both.

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