Not Alone in Hope
Lauren Peffley, MSW
I am sitting alone in our new office space, thinking about hope: Hope in empty spaces, in white walls, in bare rooms, in blank canvasses, and in overwhelming possibilities. Feeling hopeful oftentimes mixes and mingles with feeling overwhelmed. Having hope is hard work that requires courage, vision, innovation, and perseverance. Hope requires waking up, warming up, and jumping over one hurdle after another. One of the tricky things about hope is that it is usually most necessary when it is hardest to feel. Hope is something I have spent a tremendous amount of time reading about, pondering, and struggling to maintain. I wanted to share the story of my journey thus far, so that you might take heart and perhaps find your own hope…
This story begins the semester I spent studying abroad in Uganda and Rwanda. While I was studying/witnessing the devastating effects of war, genocide, and poverty, I began marking the word Hope every time it appeared in scripture or the readings assigned for our classes. Each time I felt devastated by grave social injustices plaguing our world (and especially Uganda), I returned to those highlighted HOPES, but it wasn’t enough. I bent and almost broke while there. I nearly lost my faith, and I definitely lost my hope for a time, because for me – hope cannot survive in isolation. I had to get out of my isolation and spend time with my dear Ugandan friends and family – dancing, eating, singing, walking, laughing, sharing stories, sitting, and realizing that their resilience and joy was one of the most hopeful things I’d ever witnessed.*
Shortly after that semester, I spent a year living in India working with an organization called International Justice Mission and trying to hold onto the hope I nearly lost in Uganda. While witnessing the ravages of bonded labor, an unjust caste system, extreme urban poverty, and the utter chaos of Indian city life, I felt like maintaining hope was a knock-down-drag-out fight. Oftentimes, I was the one getting knocked down and dragged around. Again, the more I isolated myself, the more hopeless I felt. But when I returned to dear friends, amazing colleagues, bright colors, spicy food, inspiring stories, meaningful work, and spending time with some of the bravest/most beautiful people I’ve ever met, I returned to hope.*
(*These short stories are not meant to minimize or romanticize the realities of individuals facing extreme poverty and injustice all across the globe. This is my attempt to honor the strength of dear friends I’ve met around the world and the hope they’ve given me.*)
Over the course of the last six years, I have struggled with an unfortunate mixture of anxiety and depression. In addition to that, I’ve spent the last 18 years of my life battling a form of O.C.D. known as Excoriation – 16.5 of those years were spent not knowing this disorder even had a name. Again, the theme of hopelessness in isolation arises because I have felt isolated in all of these disorders and diagnoses. Although people are slightly more open about mental health concerns now than they used to be, these diagnoses can foster a whole lot of hopelessness and isolation. Not having standard mental health vacation days at most work places and having to call in pretending to be sick when I am feeling severely depressed has made a lonely liar out of me far too many times. I have given myself a lot of grief for having so much trouble getting out of bed to face such a charmed life. It doesn’t feel right. I have fallen further into depression dwelling on the fact that I just read about/hear about/witness poverty, oppression, violence and exploitation, and I’ve never actually experienced any of those traumas. My exterior appears to be pretty energetic and excitable, so explaining my anxious/depressive episodes and my OCD had been very difficult for me. If it doesn’t make sense to me, then how can I make sense of it to others? To be honest, this is both the deepest and most public declaration I have ever made about this topic.
I am sharing this because I don’t feel like struggling to maintain hope while dealing with all of this on my own. I cannot do it anymore, especially not in this field doing this work. So here is my dysfunctional declaration: I have pretty consistent issues with my mental health. I get really devastated thinking about trauma, even though I’ve never experienced it. (That has a name, by the way. It’s called “Vicarious Trauma.” It’s so real.) I find mornings to be really depressing and getting out of my house to start my day is difficult for me nearly every day. My privilege makes me feel guilty basically all the time, and I am in the midst of a lifelong process of figuring out how to use it empathically, responsibly, and ethically. I hardly ever feel that my work is good enough or that I am qualified to do what I am doing. I am scared out of my mind that I will mess someone up or make things worse while attempting to help. And I know that I am not the first, the last, or the only person to feel ANY of these things.
I am not alone, and neither are you. No matter what you have been through, what you are going through, or what you will encounter in the future, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. No matter what you’ve been diagnosed with or how hard it is for you to get out of bed each day, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. No matter how many times you feel that you’ve failed or how many unmet expectations you have faced, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There is power in that phrase, and I find Hope in each of those letters.
Yes, it’s true – I am physically alone in this empty office at this moment, but thankfully, I’m not usually alone at Healing Action. I have two unbelievably amazing co-workers, who inspire hope in me every day. With their smiling faces, deep compassion, fiery passion, and propensity towards hard/meaningful work, they prove to me every day that getting out of bed that morning was so incredibly worth it. Doing this work and fighting to create a community free from exploitation is worth it. Being surrounded by dear friends, family, and freedom fighters is worth it. There is SO much work left to do: white walls to paint, empty rooms to furnish, policies to finalize, processes to plan, and clients to serve. But I gear up for this work with grit and determination, and in this moment I feel ready for the successes, the disappointments, the ups, the downs, and all the mundane in-betweens. In this moment, I am filled with the Hope that we will make a difference and that it will be well worth getting out of bed to behold.
Things that make me feel hopeful: listening to my favorite music (all the time), watching great films (and eating buttery movie popcorn), playing soccer, running long distance, playing ping-pong, random picnics, doing basically anything in the great outdoors, activism, regularly attending therapy, pursuing faith in action and social justice, cardio dancing with good friends, improving my yoga practice, forgiving myself for unproductive days, allowing myself to rest, and being with loved ones.
Take time to find and maintain whatever gives you HOPE