I want to tell you about three conversations I have had over the last several weeks that capture the current spirit of our times in fairly dramatic fashion. The first conversation was with a young man enrolled as a senior in a local high school who was concerned about all the changes and challenges presented by the COVID pandemic. He described a deep disappointment in the football games that have been cancelled due to the quarantine of several teams across the city. He talked about feeling isolated and was desperate to find ways to connect with friends, many of whom have drifted away as a result of virtual schooling. The most heartbreaking thing he said was “I just feel as if I am missing out on experiences that I will never be able to get back. I’ll never be able to re-do my senior year.” The second conversation was with a middle-aged friend who was deeply troubled by the polarized nature of the political climate and the potential chaos of the impending presidential election. He was somewhat hopeless about how life might look going forward, regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans win the White House in November. The most heartbreaking thing he said was, “I just don’t see any way out of this situation. People on both sides are angry and irrational and I can’t imagine a world where we are all able to co-exist.” The third conversation was with a young mother who was scared about what race relations might look like for her children. She was convinced that the current situation was hopeless and didn’t understand how we could recover from all the division. The most heartbreaking thing she said was, “I get so scared thinking about what this will look like in 20 years. Will my babies grow up to live in a safe world where they can thrive?” Although these three individuals are from very different walks of life, they all struggled with essentially the same problem: hopelessness. All three were hopeless that the challenges of our current situation would never relent and that we just wouldn’t recover from the trauma of 2020. This hopelessness inherent in my conversations must be more contagious than COVID because it is a theme that is underlying the explosion of mental health issues that we are seeing in the clinical offices at Florida Counseling Centers. In the midst of the craziness of this moment in time, it is imperative that we all work to trust and believe that hope is real. We have to fight the instinct to give up and shrink away from the future in fear of what it might look like. Instead, we must believe that we will get through this together and develop a deep and abiding hope that the future will bring beauty and joy and peace. Without hope, we sink into depression, anxiety, and despair. With hope, we see a path forward into a future that will bring good things. But how do we do this? How do we look beyond the reality of where we are today to genuinely believe that the future is indeed bright and hopeful?
The answer to these questions is complicated, but it does start with one simple concept: Love. We must understand that hope is driven by love. The act of loving and being kind to another human can have a dramatic effect upon your outlook for the future. The research shows that performing a loving act literally triggers the release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is associated with a positive hopeful mood. Serotonin is necessary to break the patterns of negative and hopeless thoughts associated with depression and to engage a healthy outlook that looks forward with anticipation and confidence. Even watching someone perform a loving act can have a positive effect on our mood and our outlook. The inverse is true as well: watching someone be mean and hateful towards another creates negative emotion and anger and even normalizes the negative behavior. I think it’s fair to say that the idea of loving our fellow man has not been on the forefront of our minds as we have drawn cultural lines in the sand over the last few months. While this might seem naïve to some, my encouragement to consider intentional ways to be loving towards others (especially those you don’t agree with) is a pathway to hope. What would our world look like if we all made the decision to handle others with grace, mercy, and love? What would our world look like if we all stopped watching the pundits on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC speak from a position of anger and arrogance and instead took personal responsibility to treat other people the way we wanted to be treated? I can tell you: our world would look a lot more loving and a lot more hopeful.
I used the examples above of personal conversations I have had with people as a way to illustrate a point. My hunch is that most readers have a strong opinion about the content of those conversations: COVID, politics, and race. I’m sure some of you even started formulating how you might respond to those individuals by articulating what side of the battleground you stand on. Many of you would have lectured the young man I spoke with about the necessity of quarantine and protecting others. Others would have told him how outrageous the school board is or how ridiculous quarantine is. Some of you might have been quick to educate the middle-aged man about the merits of your political perspective, whether you are right or left of center. I’m sure that many readers wouldn’t hesitate to respond eloquently about race relations with the young mother and in the process miss the opportunity to empathize with her and listen to her fears without judgment either way.
If we want to have hope about where we are headed, if we want to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem, it is incumbent upon us to approach the challenges we are facing from a position of love and mercy, not anger and arrogance. And that is where the hope lies for all of us. Many of us have heartbreaking stories about our experience the last several months, but the hope comes when we can look outside of what we are going through and look for opportunities every day to speak life into those around us. There is power in the intentional decision to love others because it breeds a common hope about the future. Trust me, I get it. All the challenges we are facing as a nation are real and they naturally illicit some fear and anxiety regardless of where you land ideologically. I know that many of us have encountered unthinkable hardship as we have navigated what seems like one problem after another. But perhaps paradoxically, our ability to feel more hopeful personally is built upon our intentional decision to lead those around us in love. So, if we choose love, we experience hope. And when we have hope together, we can all see a path forward into a bright future.