Hope: The fuel for strength and courage in challenging times
For some time now I have been mulling over 'how' to write a blog about hope. Initially my title was 'Hope: The fuel for greater well-being' with the blog relating to my life as a ski instructor and how 'my beautiful office' and indeed the thought of going to my office each day provided not only hope but the mental and physical wellbeing that so many of us crave.
But all of that came to a sudden end on the 14th of March, when the ski resorts closed, and over the next two weeks, as the Coronavirus pandemic spread and the reality sunk in, I began, what can only be described as, a process of grieving. My office had been taken away from me!! And while I am so grateful that I live in such a beautiful place, I was also frustrated each day as I looked up at the snow covered mountains yearning to be allowed back into my playground. So I was really struggling to find the motivation to write this blog and struggling to find my own hope. In addition, I also wondered if I really had anything of value to add to such discussions given all the excellent articles that are already out there?
But time and 'confinement' are a fantastic way of aiding self-reflection and putting things into perspective. I needed to move away from this self-pity and realise just how fortunate I am to have so much freedom and choice compared to so many other people. To help me through this time I have been listening to some fantastic podcasts: The Rich Roll Podcast (hosted by Rich Roll), LifeWise (hosted by Tania Cotton), The Psychology Podcast (hosted by Scott Barry Kaufman) and Finding Mastery (hosted by Michael Gervais) and what a fantastic difference these have made to my attitude and my hope for the future.
However, after much deliberation, I decided that this blog should be based around the two books that have had the greatest impact on my life: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and The Evolving Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Of course it must be recognised that I probably wouldn't have read either of these books had I not embarked (3 years ago) on the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at Bucks New University. So, this blog is, in part, my take aways from these two great books and how they have helped shape my understanding of being human and my hopes for a better future. But it is also about how these books and others plus recent podcasts (mentioned earlier) are helping me to deal with our current situation and why I am now beginning to feel excited about our opportunities for a better future. I earnestly hope that you, the reader, will gain some solace from reading this blog and that it may lead to you finding more hope. And if you have not read the two books featured then I would highly recommend you to do so.
Man's Search for Meaning
My brother gave me a copy of this book a couple of years ago and I have dipped into many times during the MAPP course. In reality I focused on the second half of the book, which is about Frankl's version of psychotherapy called Logotherapy. In essence, logotherapy focuses on the future and on having meaning in one's life so it "is a meaning-centered psychotherapy" (Frankl, 2004, p. 104). However, I have to admit that I shied away from the first half 'Experiences in a Concentration Camp' because I was scared that I would find it to be a harrowing tale of humanity at its worst akin to my experience when I visited the House of Terror in Budapest in 2018. But, on entering 'lockdown', I decided to read the book from beginning to end and I am so glad that I did. Unbelievably, in spite of the disgust and horror that one feels when reading the first half about the Holocaust, Frankl has a way of writing that allows the reader to find some 'meaning' from this terrible part of our human history. Meaning from suffering is very much the message that Frankl wishes to convey but NOT that one should seek suffering - after all this is a part of life we all have to deal with to a greater or lesser extent. This is perhaps summed up by part of a talk Frankl gave to his fellow prisoners where he recollects saying, "human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death" (p. 90). He stressed that even in the hopelessness of their situation (just trying to stay alive each day) that they should not lose hope but rather keep their courage and dignity.
Reading the first half of the book not surprisingly brings more value to the second half and a greater understanding of what logotherapy is all about. But, it is the 1984 postscript, The Case for Tragic Optimism that really resonated with me. And, in our current pandemic situation, my final quote from this book really gave me a wake up call, "If one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude" (p. 148). And while many of us are no doubt suffering (to a greater or lesser extent) due to COVID-19 how does this compare to being a prisoner in a concentration camp?
The Evolving Self
Flow (a mental state where one is totally absorbed in what one is doing) has very much been my bit of positive psychology and for readers of my previous blogs something that you will be aware of and have some understanding. In the course of my studies I have read extensively the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and while flow is an integral part of 'The Evolving Self' this book, published in 1993, is about our evolution as human beings and how "better understanding our evolutionary past we might generate the grounds for a viable meaning system, a faith that can give order and purpose to our lives in the future" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993, p. xvi). This is set against the backdrop of moving into the third millennium where religions and their mythical stories are at odds with the science of evolution. But therein lies the danger that as people reject religion and its laws on greed, violence etc. the freedom that ensues is neither healthy or desirable. And, over the years since this book was published, we can see how we have accelerated the destruction of the planet and humankind. The current pandemic is simply a 'warning' to all of us that we MUST change so much of what we do and how we go about our daily lives. And this is our chance to do just that. To change and make better decisions going forwards.
So how does 'flow' fit into all of this? After all flow, as I have often depicted it, is related to those peak experiences in sport where one is 'in the zone' and derives great deal of enjoyment from the experience. In chapter 7, Csikszentmihalyi talks about how being in flow can lead to greater complexity in our consciousness and that those who can develop the necessary skills to experience flow "not only enjoy their own lives, but they contribute to the evolution of complexity for humanity as a whole" (p. 204) whereas those who do not experience flow "end up developing selves that are often in turmoil, riven by frustrations and disappointment" (p. 204). And what an amazing opportunity we all have right now, in our current situation, to make fantastic use of all the 'time' that we have been gifted to learn new skills, read, spend quality time with each other and to seek flow in the activities that we are doing.
Both of the books that I have talked about in this blog provide reasons for hope. Man's Search for Meaning really places our current situation in context and is a reminder of just how lucky the majority of us are. While The Evolving Self reminds us how we as individuals can be better and seek to be our best selves, every day, by using our time wisely and productively as we navigate this current crisis.
But it is my ultimate hope that this crisis will create lasting change and that we will all play our part in making the future better and avoid returning to normal once this particular pandemic has abated.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). The evolving self : A psychology for the third millennium. HarperCollins Publishers.
Frankl, V. E. (2004). Man’s search for meaning : the classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. Rider.