Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pad Thai and the Death of Hope

Last Sunday night JB and I met our two good friends, Jack and Jill, both psychologists, at a local Thai restaurant. We recently attended their Seder celebration and in a sense we are becoming “family” to eachother.

The dinner conversation was typically varied, including vacation plans and the anticipation of spring and—not surprising--updates on the normal challenges around our famiies and work and other people who have significant roles in our lives. We began talking about mothers and fathers who for one reason or another were not fully present and/or did not protect their children when they were growing up; about friends who because of upbringing or different styles have different expectations about friendship; and about recognizing and reacting to people who are toxic as opposed lovingly accepting someone simply for who she/he is.

At one point Jill said, “Ah, the death of hope. It can be so helpful.”

That got my full attention. "Are you saying giving up hope is a good thing?", I asked.

Jill didn't hesitate. "I'm saying it can be a very good thing".

Years ago I watched an episode of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. I remember it vividly: a group of strangers had each won an all expense paid vacation to a mystery island. When they arrived, it was paradise: beautiful beaches, lush food, every amenity. But then things began to happen: a storm destroyed phone service with the outside world, electricity failed and all the fantastic food was soon spoiled, the help suddenly disappeared. The cooling system failed and they sweltered in the hot sun. The plane to pick them up never came.

This bleak situation extended well past the date they were to return home. After about ten days, they were able to receive a radio signal and communicate they were stranded; a few days later, they sited a small aircraft heading toward them, only to see it crash in the ocean before reaching them. After that, a boat appeared only to disappear without explanation. The phones began working again and they were told help was on the way. They packed up and waited. But noone came. Each time it appeared this group would be rescued and returned home, they were overtaken with excitement, anticipation, relief. But it was always short lived.

For months and years, hopeful signs continued to surface. A note in a bottle. The sound of a plane overhead. Another radio transmission. They never gave up hope because the possibility of rescue seemed within reach for the rest of their lives. As a result, each person clung to that hope and never accepted or adjusted to their lives on that island.

At the end of the show, the viewer learns these folks were actually dead. And they were in hell.

The death of hope. I had never thought of the pain of letting go as a positive healthy helpful event until Jill named it what it really is. Sometimes we just need to move on, to either accept or reject a person or circumstance on the basis of what is real and what is possible, and not on the basis of hope that promises but may not or cannot deliver.

Do you still wish your father would finally unconditionally love you after all these years? Or that your employer will any day recognize your achievements despite the six times you’ve been passed over for promotion? Or perhaps you want your other-wise good friend to remember your birthday just once.

We four friends agreed over Thai food that toxic people—and we and you know who they are-should be avoided at every opportunity--perhaps even permanently. Toxic people only drain and harm you--they can never help or fill you--in these cases, let go and move on as soon as you can.

Then you’re left to get your needs and hopes met a few different ways: You can express those needs and negogiate a 'give and take' compromise in a loving mutual way. You can be patient and gamble that over time things will balance out, and they often do. You can leave the door open a little even as you consider and act on other ways to have your needs met.

And in some cases, you can accept the death of hope. When you finally decide to do that, you will either freely accept and embrace what is, or you won’t . But I think Jill is right. You will have freed yourself from what is not real so you can live with what is real. I resist admitting it sometimes, but accepting truth and reality is better than dreaming and fantasy. At least you know where you stand, and when you know that, you can build from there....


  1. Acceptance of one's faith. Is that not a good thing? Doesn't that make a more happy person. I believe so. It is close to giving up hope, I guess.
    These are very wise words on your blog tonight.
    I'm humbled.

  2. An interesting point ! and very clearly illustrated. Perhaps a good balance between acceptance on the one hand and dreams/hopes on the other hand is also a good way of standing in life.

  3. One of the challenges thinking people have is how to create a balance between two concepts that are valid and compelling. The tagline of one of my favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption, is "Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free." For some people, hope provides the strength they need to make it to the "outside" where they can live and be free. For others, hope is a delusion they use to numb the pain of reality. I agree that in that last scenario, giving up "hope" is setting oneself free. Ah.. good old Twilight Zone. It really wasn't a show for children, but I watched it all the time as a child! That might explain many things...

  4. Hmm, many of our expectations set us up for frustration. And it's not always easy to change those expectations, especially if it feels as though we're lowering our standards by doing so.

    But as you say, accepting things as-they-are and letting go can be very freeing.

  5. One of my favorite quotes is, "Expectations are resentments waiting to happen." :) This is good advice ... not easy to hear and not easily done, but the freedom in it feels so fine when we can get past the walls we make for ourselves.

  6. Again a very wise and well thought-over and written post, KJ. I have nothing to add, because I am thinking just the same about these things. The Twilight Zone was here also on television. I have seen a few of them.

  7. pieterbie, i like thinking about this as acceptance of one's faith.

    hidegarde, thank you. i wish i could better balance dreams/hopes and acceptance. i'm working on it!

    carla, the yin and yang. so we are both children of the twilight zone. yes, that may explain alot!

    bibi, the "lowering of standards" sometimes trips me up. i know i matter, but i want to be able to accept people i love as they are and not feel like it deminishes me. thanks for your comment.

    melissa, i love the quote. resentment is bad.thanks as always for your wise words.

    wieneke, i think if we were to have breakfast together (the iap..) we would find we are alike in our sensitivities and views. i am very glad to know you.

  8. Expectations – I think they are necessary in our relationships and transactions. For example, if a family sends their loved one to a hospital, they should expect quality nursing and medical care. Yes, they may be frustrated but if they don’t expect standards, there is not much the institutions could offer. I hire an employee and expect quality work, those are his or her standards and my expectations. In my relationship, I expect my husband to love, respect and care for me in the same manner he expects the same from me. Of course I will surely be frustrated and unhappy if he did not love me! Friends too have expectations of one another. Maybe they don’t express it verbally but there are quiet expectations. I would not be happy in a friendship without great expectations. It’s the equivalent of shopping at a corner grocery store versus a gourmet store and I am a gourmet cook and yes I get frustrated a lot! But I do not like mediocrity and I certainly will not tolerate a bore. I loved the Twiglight Zone. Were they filmed in black and white? They should sell the videos and we can have a Twilight Zone party.

  9. Abandon HOPE all ye who enter here!

    Whatever happened to that which does not kill you will make you stronger. Don't we learn more about ourselves through adversity.
    Isn't Harm Avoidance impossible?

    Who am I kidding..
    I avoid Tedious-Toxic people like the plague and HOPE that I never run into them again...ever.

  10. The writer and Buddhist monk Pema Chodron begims one book with the admonition that first you must let go of hope. Not in a despairing way but, as you are saying, in the sense of attachment to the diea that things/people will be a certain way. So far to do! That letting go has to be done repeatedly, I think.