By Danny Burgess, Ph.D.
Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1.
I have been fairly reluctant to compose this article. As I have been reading the various Sunnyhuckle essays, I am certain this one will not fit in. It is not very sunny, nor will it receive any huckles.
On my way to work each morning, I pass a scrolling, electronic billboard off the interstate. One of the images is a beach scene. You can see the ocean rolling up to the sand on a beautiful, calm day. On the sand there is an individual in a wheelchair and written out beside the person is the quote, “I will walk again.”
Now, for most normal people this would be inspiring and uplifting. For me, as a clinical psychologist, it makes me cringe.
The intent of this billboard message is not lost on me; I get that, at its face value, it is meant to convey hope and encouragement (and also advertisement for a particular medical center). The point of this essay is not to deconstruct the meaning of this billboard and get lost in the semantics of its message. I would much rather take a broader approach, step back, and explore a bigger picture. The point of this essay is to share maybe a different perspective on what is universally considered a positive internal experience known as hope.
In my first essay, I alluded to the point that, at the most rudimentary level, people are motivated by fear and hope. I argued that fear should not be an emotion we attempt to eliminate but rather acknowledge, accept, and allow. The goal is to use fear as a source of energy to move forward, not as a hindrance. I also briefly mentioned that hope can also serve a dual role as a motivation for change or be paralyzing and destructive. I have found people’s hope can become just as detrimental as fear.
Now do not get me wrong; I am all for hopefulness and optimism. For all I know, the individual on the billboard may be able to get up one day and walk again. I work hard to encourage individuals to keep their hope alive during times when they feel there is nothing for which to live. That type of hope does elicit change, as it pulls people out of the depths of despair and distress.
But what about the type of hope that not only interferes with people moving forward but actually is the reason they remain stuck?
I first met “Michael”* when he rolled into my office in his wheelchair one afternoon. He was a broad-shouldered, muscular young man in his 20s with a quiet, yet powerful, demeanor. His wheelchair struggled to contain his intensity. Approximately two years ago, he was on the receiving end of a violent stabbing that severed his spinal cord. Through extensive assessment, it was determined Michael sustained what is known as a complete spinal cord injury.
Okay, your quick biology lesson for the week—your spinal cord is made up of bundles of nerve tissues and cells that relay electrical impulses back and forth, communicating to all parts of your body. Basically, your spinal cord is like an interstate highway and the vehicles are the electrical impulses that go in both directions, sending and receiving messages to dictate specific functions. When working properly, the electrical impulses are sent through the spinal cord and traffic is flowing smoothly and efficiently. Everything works. If the cord is slightly damaged, then we may go from a four-lane highway to a one-lane highway. Some signals are still getting through, but not all. And it is slower and more effortful. Not all things work. This would be considered an incomplete spinal cord injury. Now, if the bridge went out on the interstate, then no vehicles (or electrical impulses) are getting through. Nothing works. This would be called a complete spinal cord injury. A lot goes into determining the level of injury to the spinal cord (complete vs. incomplete), because the proper diagnosis dictates treatment plans and prognosis.
It also dictates expectations.
Barring any miracle, Michael will not walk again. Please understand, I am a firm believer in miracles. But miracles are out of my realm of expertise and skill. I am not in the miracle-making business. Fortunately, that is left to Someone Else. I am in the business of helping individuals deal with and manage what is right in front of them: their reality. I cannot help someone who is waiting and hoping for a miracle to occur. But, that is not to say one won’t.
Michael hopes he will walk again and lives his life anticipating that he will walk again. Once more, I cringe. This is a young man who still has a promising life ahead of him, but the only way he sees a life ahead of him is if he is walking through it. Consequently, he does not engage in the therapy or obtain the necessary equipment he needs to live a productive life as an individual with a complete spinal cord injury. In his mind, why should he do these things when he will eventually walk again?
His family and friends admire—and even encourage—this level of hope. I mean, who wants to be that person to tell him otherwise? Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I tend to be that person.
First of all, I am not his family, nor his friend. My job is to help people see how to keep moving forward with a purpose and a plan. If I bought into the “you will walk again” hope, then I have become nothing more than just another person on the sidelines cheering him on, but not really helping him.
That kind of hope keeps Michael—and others—stuck.
So what kind of hope do I buy into? Grounded hope.
It does not sound glamorous or necessarily inspiring, but it is the type of hope that allows people to move forward.
Grounded hope is hope with acceptance. Acceptance is a tricky concept. Accepting your circumstances can sometimes be perceived as though you have resigned to your situation. Some see it as giving up. Submission. But on the contrary; acceptance is an active and dynamic process.
Acceptance is about moving forward despite your circumstances. It is moving forward and bringing your circumstances along with you. When your hope is grounded by accepting your reality, then you are able to transcend your past and begin to build your future. Michael has all the hope in the world but lacks the acceptance to ground it. It is a nice thought to be that hopeful, which is why his hope is encouraged and reinforced by his family and friends. But it is that same hope that keeps him from the potential of his future.
I just recently started seeing “Martha”* a few months ago. Martha is in her mid-70s, and her husband of 40 plus years is dying of pancreatic cancer and has decided to stop his chemotherapy treatment.
Martha has always found comfort in being prepared, organized, and in control. Up until now, these characteristics have been rather functional for her. However, she recently found there is nothing that will make you feel more unprepared, disorganized, and out of control than cancer. Hence, Martha’s visit to my office.
She wanted to know what to expect. She wanted to know timelines. She wanted to know how to beat this cancer and change the inevitable outcome. She was hopeful that, if everything was done properly and on schedule, then maybe, just maybe, the cancer would go away. I quickly realized it was not her husband’s cancer causing her distress and anxiety, but rather it was her hope that was the source of her suffering.
The goal of therapy with Martha was not to quickly dispose of her hope (she probably would never come back to see me) but rather gradually direct her hope toward something she actually had control over. She needed to find hope in something that she can do something about. As the process of therapy unfolded, Martha became grounded by accepting the circumstances present in her life. Consequently, she began to find some relief from her anxiety. Instead of hoping for healing, she found a renewed hope in the relationship with her husband—being present with him and finding solace in their moments together.
As I continue to pass by that billboard every day on my way to work, I keep waiting for the words to change from “I will walk again” to “I will move forward.” To me, that would move the connotation of the message from having hope in the outcome (what we sometimes cannot control) like Michael had to having hope in the process (what we can control) like Martha eventually had.
Pairing acceptance with hope—being a Martha rather than a Michael—frees you to move forward through your situation and to a point where true healing can begin.
* Details have been changed to protect the identity of the patients.
Danny Burgess earned his Bachelor of Science from The University of Southern Mississippi and his Doctor of Philosophy from Auburn University. His internship and post-doctoral fellowship were spent at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. He currently works as the clinical psychologist for the outpatient clinics of Methodist Rehabilitation Center and has a private practice in Highland Village, both in Jackson, MS.