Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #12 — On Hanging on to Hope: “But I was supposed to get . . . “

#12 — On Hanging on to Hope: “But I was supposed to get . . . “

It was the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, who penned the often quoted line, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  The resilience born of hope has often been cited in literature and elsewhere.  For example, Albert Einstein advised, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”  The Dalai Lama acknowledged, “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest.”  And Christopher Reeve assured us, “Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”  For me, some of the best evidence of the power of hope was shown in early 1968, 1976, and 1987.  In each case, the Boston Red Sox brought optimism and hope back to spring training after suffering a heart-breaking loss during the previous October in a World Series they had seemed destined to win. 

1967 had been the year of “the impossible dream,” with Carl Yastrzemski winning the triple crown and the Red Sox, a 100-to-1 underdog, clinching the pennant on the final day of the season.  But young Jim Lonborg, having won two games and pitching on two days’ rest, didn’t have enough left to finish, and the Sox lost in game seven to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals.  In 1975, with a very strong team, the Sox met the Cincinnati Reds in what many consider one of the best World Series ever played.  Baseball fans still talk about Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run in the 10th inning of game six to force a seventh game.  Yet the Sox lost again that next day when Joe Morgan hit a bloop single to drive in the winning run for the Reds in the ninth inning.  Then in 1986, after taking a two-game lead over the Mets and coming to within one pitch of clinching the Series, the Sox again found fortune turning against them.  After a series of lost opportunities and mishaps, characterized by Bill Buckner’s famous error on a ground ball to first base, the Red Sox finally succumbed once again. 

Each of these losses would seem so demoralizing as to make the prospect of coming back from it overwhelming.  Yet in each case the beginning of spring training was greeted by players and fans alike with enthusiasm, optimism, and — most of all — hope.  This is the nature of hope, after all.  Hope is what compels us to keep striving to do better.  Hope is what drives us to seek new opportunities.  And hope is what encourages us to take the risks necessary to change and to grow.  Just as we see the persistence of hope in baseball, we see instances of it in almost every aspect of life, from young people seeking to establish their independence to older people working to arrange some kind of fresh start.  I often see examples in my therapy practice.  It may appear in people who struggle to heal from trauma or abuse, to escape from the grip of addiction, or to free themselves from their own sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.  Whatever their reasons for starting, those who decide that the benefits of therapy are worth the work involved keep coming back.  And when they do, hope comes with them. 

I will not soon forget a young man I saw some years ago.  Falsely accused by his alcoholic wife of abusing his three young children, he was accosted and brutally hauled out of his home by police.  He was thrown into jail and then assaulted while in jail.  During this time, his wife had fled the state with their children and gone into hiding.  She was later found and apprehended, and the man was eventually released.  Yet he soon found himself struggling almost to the point of being unable to function.  He saw several doctors and was eventually referred to me with a severe case of PTSD.  Our time together was intense, with the young man working diligently to overcome flashbacks and nightmares and a sense of himself that had become horribly negative.  Yet for all his struggling, I was struck with how he persisted.  Frequently he would tell me, “I don’t care how hard it is or how long it takes.  I’m going to get through this and be well.”  The hope that had brought him to see me fuelled his determination.  Not only did he get well, but after a long and bitter struggle, he finally gained custody of his children and later went on to pursue a doctorate in psychology.

Still, as powerful as hope is, there is always a danger that hope can morph into expectation and in so doing change our entire outlook.  Almost as soon as we are born, we begin to learn what to expect from our caregivers and from our environment.  And our early experiences prompt certain judgments — safe or unsafe, good or bad, mine or yours.  These all become part of what we learn to expect.  Thus expectation shapes our perceptions and personalizes our reality.  And as expectation grows, our anticipation builds into a sense of entitlement.  Then, when what is expected does not happen, we feel deprived.  We feel as if we have been denied something to which we are entitled, almost as if our rights have been violated.  Soon this sense of violation festers and turns into resentment, which corrodes and can eventually destroy relationships.  In a uniquely 21st Century example, I have recently seen a number of relationships founder because someone’s expectation of an instant response to an “instant message” was not met.

One of my own experiences with hope and expectation came in connection with my recent open-heart surgery.  Since I had been through a previous surgery some eight years earlier, I had naturally convinced myself that I knew what to expect and how to handle my recovery afterwards.  And just as naturally, my experience this time was substantially different from the first one.  Rather than being clear and focused, I came out of the anesthesia cloudy and disoriented.  I remained that way for more than a day following the surgery.  When I later learned that this was the likely result of my having been given a powerful narcotic and that I’d had a bad reaction, I could feel a temptation to become upset.  Fortunately, my insightful and supportive wife helped me to regain my focus and my hope.  The power of this hope and the support I received helped me concentrate on my rehabilitation so I could return to my therapy practice and restore my quality of life.  On the day I returned to my office a month later, I truly felt like a ballplayer reporting for spring training.

And, yes, in 2004 the Red Sox finally did win the World Series, their first since 1918.  Could they have endured 86 years of disappointment and kept going based on expectation rather than hope?  I think not.  Each year when the baseball season ends, fans of all the teams that have not been winners repeat the hopeful refrain, “Wait ‘till next year.”  They know that just as there is always another season to be prepared for, there is always another game to be played.  And since no one can predict the outcome, winning that next game is always possible.  We sometimes forget that the same holds true in life.  Each day is a new game, and all we can expect is the unexpected.  But if we can let go of expectations and allow ourselves to be fuelled by hope, then we can pursue our dreams, accept our disappointments, and keep on going.  Then maybe we won’t have to wait ‘till next year.

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