Ten Things To Do When You’re Feeling Hopeless


elephant weeping by nick kean on flickr, CC-BY-2.0

Four years ago, when I was young, naive and idealistic, I wrote one of my most popular posts, called Ten Things to Do When You’re Blue. I still kinda like its facile advice, but these days, I’m more likely to feel hopeless than sad, more likely to feel as if nothing is ever enough, as if nothing really makes a difference, as if our whole human civilization is unraveling and there is nothing I or anyone can do about it. It’s a different feeling from sadness, and perhaps it needs a different, more complex set of ideas for coping with it. Here’s what I came up with to that end:

  1. Give up hope: That’s right, get off the hope/despair roller coaster and realize once and for all it’s hopeless! You should have known when a US presidential candidate won an election on a platform of mere ‘hope’ that it was time to give it up. Derrick Jensen explains how and why to get Beyond Hope:
    The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in [Pandora’s] box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line… People sometimes ask me, ‘If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?’ The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good… Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation.

    So embrace hopelessness! It’s OK! It makes sense. Read John Gray’s Straw Dogs. He, too, will tell you that it’s hopeless, that “When [the human species] is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.” But that we can, should, must still be intentional, responsible, and joyful.

  2. Explore your gifts and passions with someone you love: Get together with someone you love and tell each other what you really care about, what you have real passion for, and what you think really needs to be done in the world, that you think you could actually contribute to usefully, and would really enjoy doing. Then tell each other what you think each other’s gifts to the world are, the things that other person is, in your view, uniquely good at doing. I bet you’ll feel things starting to shift, in ways that are practical, and intentional, instead of just desperately, uselessly hopeful.
  3. Be good to yourself: If you’ve been reading the previous points, you should now appreciate that it’s perfectly understandable, even sensible, to feel hopeless. We’re fucked, and you know it, but still you’re doing your part, taking responsibility, doing important work to mitigate or help adapt to the hopeless future we all face, right? So ease off. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself a break. Pamper yourself. Have a long hot bath by candlelight, with your favourite music playing. Go for a walk in the moonlight, or sleep under the stars. Play something, or just play around, by yourself or with those you love. Have chocolate by the fire. Celebrate the fact that you’re smart enough, informed enough, strong enough, sensitive enough, to feel utterly hopeless. You have to love that!
  4. Cry (like an elephant): Research suggests that crying is a natural response to stress and grief, with enormous therapeutic value: “Tears aren’t just salt water; they contain leucine enkephalin, an endorphin that modulates pain, and hormones such as prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone, released at times of stress. Tears [might] be the body’s way of flushing out excess stress hormones… a safety valve.” Elephants, with exceptionally large brains and memories, visit the sites of pack-mates’ past deaths or suffering every day for years, to remember and to cry, according to research by Jeff Masson. It’s natural, it feels good, and it’s good for you. So why does our culture not want us to cry when we feel hopeless? Hmmm.
  5. Listen to kids talk about what they care about: Kids are hopeless. By that I mean that, until their parents, peers and the education system brainwash them to start planning and hoping for their future, and living inside their heads, they live in the present, without hope. By listening to them we can relearn what it means to live without the need to hope, to just accept and be.
  6. Learn to be “present” like wild creatures: Like young children, wild creatures don’t live in hope. They too live in the real world, in the present. They have much to teach us about the First Principles of living, hopelessly: Be generous. Value your time. Live naturally. Learn to be present, your own way — meditation, exercise, walks in the woods — whatever works for you. Hope and hopelessness are both about the future. When you are present, neither has any hold on you.
  7. Talk with other hopeless people: We’re all part of the Earth organism, and it’s hopeless for all of us, so acknowledging that and starting to talk about it knowingly and honestly is the first step in making peace with our hopelessness, and with our collective grief. Perhaps it’s time to challenge the taboo in our culture that we must not admit to, or talk about, the hopelessness of our situation, and our feelings of hopelessness. You might start with someone you care about who you haven’t talked with in a long time. Right now, yeah, leave a message if you have to, and persevere. When you do converse, forget about catching up on old news or talking about future plans. Talk about what you’re doing and feeling right now. Including the feelings of hopelessness. Bring them into your present and they’ll bring you into the present in return, and out of the “hopeless” future.
  8. Avoid unactionable news and “self-help” books: The media don’t have a clue, and the “news” is all about what has already happened, dumbed down, sensationalized and oversimplified to the point of meaninglessness. And skip the “good news” pap and the technophiles’ gee-whiz “future’s so bright and green I gotta wear shades” new invention news, too. It’s all designed to make you feel hopeful, so you don’t rise up and do something dangerous or appropriate to the worst of the perpetrators who have, in fact, made everything hopeless. And while you’re dispensing with hopeless reading, throw out all those so-called “self-help” books with their glib prescriptions for you how you should live. There are gazillions of them out there, clogging the aisles of bookstores everywhere. Most of their readers will tell you (even as they buy more of them, stupidly, hopefully): They don’t work! Things are the way they are for a reason. You are the way you are for a reason. Accept what is. Appreciate it. Make peace with it. It’s all good. It’s absurd to hope that some stupid book is going to change it. Donate your “self-help” money instead to those who truly embrace hopelessness, like the local homeless people, or your local food bank, or animal rescue centre, or radical activist group. And when you’re picking what to read, choose poetry and stories about the present, not nostalgic or traumatic stories about the past or cautionary tales about the future.
  9. Dream: Dreams are alternate realities, and they are realities we can create and control. When you give vent to your imagination, it can manifest, ‘real-ize’ wonderful inventions — works of art, with amazing healing, communicating, inspirational and transformative power. Your dreams are clues to your gift to the world.
  10. Fall in love: I have no advice at all on how to do this. All I know is that it works. It’s risky and addictive, for sure, and for most of us its most blissful effects wear off too fast. But nature has given us this wonderful state of foolish, invincible, chemical-induced grace, and it makes us immune to both hope and hopelessness.

I will resist the temptation to rant about things I think are dumb to do when you’re feeling hopeless (like praying, or asking others for help), because that would get me into arguments, and arguments on things like religion and psychiatry are worse than hopeless.

So, if you’ve read this list, I trust you are not feeling better.

After all, it is hopeless.

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13 Responses to Ten Things To Do When You’re Feeling Hopeless

  1. Beth says:

    Your first point reminds me of a book titled ‘Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy’ in which the author declares that depression isn’t all bad. It’s natural. Yeah… if you’re going to off yourself then get some help; otherwise, embrace it. You never know what creative genius may come from being naturally down without any number of medications forcing you into a false state of happy happy happy! You might as well, right? After all… it’s hopeless anyway. ;)

    I love this post.

  2. Joan says:

    i totally love this post! and i laughed right out loud at the end. nice one, Dave.

  3. Ron Lubensky says:

    Great post! I agree with your idea of hopelessness, as it embraces an acceptance of uncertainty. I’m currently living with cancer. Some friends want to encourage me into a denialist stance that only focuses on the hope for cure and long-term future plans, which is still possible. But I find THAT pretension all too stressful. I’d rather just live day to day and make the best of it, and just do what I need to do now. The irony is that I actually raise my chance for cure by being hopeless, in your relaxed sense of the word.

    Can I add something?

    Find opportunities to laugh, and the more hopelessly, unselfconsciously crazily so, the better! A funny friend, a silly movie or book, your weird cat, whatever. Write something ridiculous.

    Look in the mirror and laugh at the hopelessly earnest and dishevelled person smiling back at you. “I’m going to be hopelessly grumpy whether I like it or not! Don’t tell me not to talk to myself! And stop bloody well arguing with me! ….” :-)

  4. Gena says:

    Nuts. And hooey. With a side order of pfbtttt. If you think I’m joining the Echo chorus of praise on this one you got another thing coming. Numbers 1, 8 and 10 are just infuriating to me.

    Those of us that hope for better are nothing more than delusional fools?
    Depression and melancholy as coping tools?
    Love as a panacea to the pain of reality?

    You are kidding right?

    Look, I am totally accepting of facing reality, being prepared and looking for options. I also know that dipping to the darkness can be beneficial to creativity for a limited time only.

    It ain’t dark because just because it is cozy and hides you from view. There is a circular toxicity that exist in that realm that kills. The human spirit first and body second. Y’all go romping around that playground if you want to. I’ve got better things to do.

    Numbers 2 through 7 sound like self help advice so I shouldn’t pay attention to that stuff right? ;-)

    Maybe I should not have read this post. It is one of privileged people trying to rationalize how to go forward in a changing time. Numbing out feelings is not an acceptable answer. It never has been.

    When the time comes you and others will make a fundamental choice; to live fully or die because it is “hopeless.”

    I’ll check back later. Maybe this is a necessary phase some folks need to pass through to get to a place where they are open to receive better ideas and coping skills.

    Love makes you immune to hope and hopelessness?

    (The sound of manic laughter fills the room.)

  5. Shirley says:

    OK, I’ll have to give Gena her objection about No. 10, as I’m feeling a bit jaded about that one at the moment myself. Still, all around another brilliant post, Dave. I especially love the advice in No. 8 — was just thinking today how pointless, repetitive, addicting and utterly worthless most of what passes for “self-help” is. (And I’m speaking not from my own interest in such, but from my experience with someone else’s addiction to it … see my comment regarding No. 10 above.) Absolutely right on, too, about listening to kids — they really do live in the moment for the most part (gradually fades as they grow), and it can be a wonderful thing to behold … and join in with.

    Keep the good — or hopeless — thoughts coming!

  6. Carla says:

    Today I really needed to read these 10 points. I will print this post and fixed it in front of me at my desk. For me, this is the right post at the right time! :)))
    Thank you.


  7. This certainly gives me hope: “our whole human civilization is unraveling and there is nothing I or anyone can do about it.” Maybe, just maybe, we’ll save a species or two from the ongoing omnicide. Maybe we’ll be one of them.

  8. Ed Straker says:

    Derrick Jensen is no tonic for the depressed. He drives people towards rage, not inner-peace. Maybe read some Joanna Macy to get a different viewpoint.

  9. Benjammin says:

    Bravo, superb insight.

  10. Nathan says:

    I am intrigued by the concept of “giving up hope”, but I don’t think it is the same as despair. In fact, I think Tolkein hit on one of the best comments about despair – it is only for people who know beyond any doubt what will happen. However, if you’ve convinced yourself you know everything then maybe you’ll end up in that state. Perhaps you are a little to comfortable in your pessimistic assumptions about what will happen, as there are alternative ideas that do not fit into the mainstream “optimism” that you refer to.

    Personally, I take a Socratic approach, in that the only thing I really know is that I don’t know anything that much. Perhaps the oracle of Delphi was right about Socrates being the wisest man (bear in mind that I am suspicious of what Plato probably attributed to him). Well who cares if it was Socrates or not, still makes a lot of sense to me. In fact some of the only times recently that I felt a sort of calm was when I had this sudden realisation of not knowing anything. Oddly comforting really. Filling your head with information gives the illusion of knowledge, but it is impossible to really know what will actually happen to the world, it is only possible to make an educated guess.

  11. Chaitanya says:

    I just read the Jensen article, and i would interpret the gist of his article not as “realize once and for all it’s hopeless”, but give up *false hope* that things would somehow change automatically. This false hope he points out is a kind of escapism, and excuse for inaction. An escape from the present moment. Even just writing off the situation as “hopeless”, is the other side of the coin, and could turn into a kind of escapism, and excuse for inaction. Both these ends are to be avoided.

    Only when false hope is given up, and hopelessness is also given up, and one fully confronts the present moment in its actuality, one can freely *act* in the moment to the best of one’s ability.

    This sounds very similar to what Buddha and Krishnamurti taught.

  12. Elli says:

    Right post for me at the right time. Thanks.

    I am feeling great despair, and shame and guilt and anger and loss, at the global crisis and my complicity in it. There are many other feelings in there too.

    The question of hope. I like that discussion. Hope is definitely out for me. I agree, hope is partner with oppression.

    At night, when trying to fall asleep but finding my brain overflowing with thoughts about the global crisis, the best thing I have found to do is connect with my senses. Right now I can sense the sheets on my body. I lay my hand on my daughter’s shoulder and sense her breathing. I curl up next to my son and sense his heart beating under my arm. I lay my hand on my own heart and sense its beating. I listen to my husband breathe.

    I also weep. I’ve wept in front of my boss and my assistant. I wept at a staff meeting. I’ve wept in front of my family. I’ve called my dearest friends and wept.

    This post resonates with me.

    Thank you.

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