With social distancing and self-quarantines, it can be challenging not to succumb to depression and a sense of helplessness.
Many people are looking to bolster their spirits in a variety of ways. Music can have a significant impact on mood, promote sleep, and can reduce anxiety. This energetic song by the Piano Guys, with special guest Cliff Richard, is one example of music that can boost your mood:
Why should the peppy music and the words “It's gonna be okay” make a difference? Is this just wishful thinking, a false sense of optimism? Or is it something else?
In a recent post published in The Conversation newsletter, Everett Worthington, a world expert on forgiveness, points to hope as a key to surviving and thriving in our current situation. (Magis highlighted his work in a previous post.)
What hope is not
Worthington is clear not only on what hope is not but also states what it is:
“First, hope is not Pollyannaish optimism—the assumption that a positive outcome is inevitable. Instead, hope is a motivation to persevere toward a goal or end state, even if we’re skeptical that a positive outcome is likely.” -Everett Worthington
An optimist just assumes everything is going to be ok, but the hopeful person works towards a positive outcome, even if there is uncertainty about its realization.
One of the conclusions from a study he mentions is that being more hopeful can keep us healthier.
But how can we increase our hope if we are feeling helpless and somewhat depressed in these challenging times? And how can we persevere through persistent threats to hope?
Suggestions for increasing hope
When it comes to increasing hope, Worthington suggests podcasts or stories about individuals who confronted overwhelming challenges and made profound changes in their lives and the lives of others. One such person is Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician whose story is told in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.” Her autobiography, “Reaching for the Moon,” is recommended by the Vatican Observatory.
Other suggestions come from a team of researchers from Harvard’s “Human Flourishing Program,” which conducted the study mentioned above. This blog post from that program offers focused suggestions based on the key limitations we confront in the world at this time.
During this Covid-19 pandemic, fear has driven many people to become “hoarders” of essential supplies. Who knew that hand sanitizer would vanish from stores and off the internet for several weeks? Dare we mention toilet paper?
These circumstances bring forward a renewed emphasis on the need to help others, especially the more vulnerable segments of our population. Many churches and individuals have offered to shop for the elderly in their communities and neighborhoods. In our town, we have a food bank where help is needed to pack boxes of food for their regular, and now growing, number of individuals in need.
Find a way to help locally if you can. An overlooked need is for blood donations! The Red Cross is still accepting appointments for new donors. You can contact the Red Cross for locations and guidelines during the crisis.
No excuses for not building relationships
With the hectic pace of life slowing down, or grinding to a halt for many people, perhaps we can eliminate the “I have no time” excuses surrounding exercise, prayer, or spending time with family.
Perhaps this is a providential time to reflect on the relationships in our lives. We might reach out to old friends and family members. Receiving a letter or card offering encouragement or recalling humorous stories can be a delightful surprise and an easy gift to give to someone who is feeling isolated and alone. Are there people in your life you need to forgive or to ask for forgiveness?
Many recent articles highlight how physical distancing and quarantine have raised global awareness of the importance of social connections in our society. There are inspiring stories of people helping others in creative and specific ways. Schools from elementary to universities are building remote ways of building a sense of community through online “social interaction” even as they teach. Many churches are undertaking similar efforts to make sure members stay connected.
Perhaps now is also the time to reflect on what significant relationships in your life might need work. How about your relationship with God? With yourself?
All of these suggestions and reflections should sound familiar for those who have listened to talks or read about Fr. Spitzer’s four levels of happiness. The means to achieve most kinds of happiness depend on actions we can take here and now: looking for the good news in others, making a positive contribution in the world, and knowing that the purposes and goals of life find their fulfillment in eternity.
Hope is a virtue
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue this way:
Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. -Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808
The Catechism spells out several key features of the theological virtue of hope.
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men's activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity. -Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1818 [emphasis added]
This certainly sounds like a prescription for our times.
The Catechism is quick to remind us that hope needs to be nourished by prayer and recommends the Our Father as “the summary of everything that hope leads us to desire” (1820). Is it a coincidence or an inspiration that there is a chain letter going around asking people to pray the Our Father with 8 other people for an end to the crisis?
Suffering and hope in these times
Suffering is a part of life at all times, and hope will not eliminate the very real suffering so many people are currently experiencing. Hope can strengthen us as we reevaluate our priorities and actions and examine our relationships not only to our immediate neighbors but to our global neighbors and to the Father of us all.
Timing is everything: Lent and preparing for Easter
The conclusion to the Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program post sums it up well:
Our confrontation with suffering, and even death, provides an important opportunity for reflection. What is it that we value most? What relationships might be in need of forgiveness or reconciliation? How is it that we are to understand our lives and our own mortality? These are not easy questions. For these, we must turn away from the data. We must turn towards our interior life, to those around us who are wise, to our rich theological and philosophical traditions, to try, as best as possible, to discern what it is that matters most.
The most succinct summary, however, is one sentence from Benedict XVI’s (then Joseph Ratzinger) “The Feast of Faith”:
"Nothing can make man laugh unless there is an answer to the question of death." -Benedict XVI
Jesus who is faithful has answered it: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” John 11:25
For additional reflections on hope, see the full text of Pope Francis’ meditation before he imparted the unique Urbi et orbi blessing on Friday, March 27, 2020.
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