Losing Hope to Find It: Pruning Life for New Growth

It’s nice when we can become known for something positive rather than negative, for a good character trait rather than a flaw, for success rather than failure, as someone who brings a smile and comfort and not disdain and disappointment. Truth is, I’ve been (and am) known for all those things, good and bad. I have decided though, (and have to remind myself often) that I want to be better known for the positive side of those things. For this reason, it makes my soul smile when someone tells me that when they see a post, or sign, about HOPE, they think of me. It makes me feel like I’m doing something right – like I’m spreading antibodies to help build immunity against despair.

But what is HOPE? Is it seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty? Well, that’s a start. But HOPE is much more than that. To me, HOPE is a posture. It is a feeling and belief (faith) that allows me to endure pain, sadness, and trials of all kinds, because I am confident that there is a purpose for it all – something that gives it all meaning – or something better on the other side of my struggle if I can endure it.

My love affair with HOPE may have started as a defense mechanism (or morphed into one) that allowed me to deal with unpleasant or difficult things in my life that I felt I had no power, or right, to change. I would set my sight (vision) on a point ahead in the road, and tell myself that if I can just push through till I reach that point, things would be much better. Then the pain will end (or at least lessen). Or I will be given some insight that will help me understand where my trials are producing worthwhile benefits, for myself or someone else.

When I get finished with school…
When I get this debt paid…
When this business makes a profit…
When we get moved…
When I get that job…

I tried to set my sights on goals that I was quite sure would eventually happen, instead of something that might or might not (although sometimes they were quite improbable). If it did not come to fruition, I would set a new goal. The most difficult thing was when I reached each successive point that I had fixed my sights on, without the pain and trials lessening. And all that seemed to be changing were the pages on the calendar, the wrinkles and gray hairs looking back from the mirror, and the weakening of the eyes and body. Time became my enemy when I once thought it my ally.

The blessing and the curse of mid-life is a change of perspective. Not only do you continue to look forward down the road and reset your sights, but you look back on the tracks left by the journey so far, and you ask yourself what the road ahead looks like based on the history of the road already traveled.

A friend of mine recommended a book, based on a vague status update that I had put on Facebook when I was feeling a little less HOPEful than normal. It was a book called “Necessary Endings”, by Dr. Henry Cloud. I ordered a copy based on her recommendation (She has a counseling practice, though she is a friend and not my therapist.). I read it in one or two days. I was amazed at the relevancy this book had to my life. And strangely, my friend didn’t know the particulars of my struggles, and she hadn’t read very far into the book herself at the time that she recommended it.

I had learned to tie a rope on HOPE and hold on with all my might. To just DEAL with it. HOPE was as necessary for my life as oxygen. And Dr. Cloud affirmed how important HOPE was for life. But…imagine my shock when he proposed that my pain was not likely to end until I GIVE UP hope. He said that I have to give up hope in something for which hope was unreasonable.

“It is imperative that you give up hope if your hope is not a hope at all but just an empty wish. But how do we know the difference between wishing and hoping? When most people talk about tomorrow and wanting something in their lives to be different or to get better, they use the word hope. Dictionary definitions of hope contain two elements. The first is a ‘desire or expectation’ for something in the future to occur. ‘I hope this thing turns around.’ The second is usually ‘grounds for believing’ that something in the future will occur. ‘She sees some hope because of next year’s product line.’ The real problem is when we have one without the other: a desire without any grounds. That is hope based not on reality but on our desires, our wishes.”

Sometimes (and this is exceedingly difficult, and even unnatural, for me to do) it is necessary to give up hope in something that is expending your energies and time, and has already shown (through sufficient investment) that it is to no avail, in order to continue to embrace a more reasonable HOPE.

It has been said that change will not occur until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the pain of the change.

If a hamster is going to run, do you suppose he would rather run through tubes or mazes that bring some reward, than on a wheel that leaves him tired and dizzy, getting nowhere? Perhaps it is a blessing that the hamster may not live long enough to despair, when he sees how pointless his efforts are.

I think the big fear is (I know it is for me) that we may give up hope too soon. It’s like tunneling for gold for years deep into a mountain, never reaching it. You come to the point of exhaustion and despair, feeling that you have wasted your life away. You want to give up. But you don’t know whether you may strike the mother-lode with another day’s digging, or eventually die having never realized your hopes. If you give up hope and turn back, you’ll never know for sure. To continue, or to give up; either is a risk. Either can lead to bitterness and despair, or freedom from your tyranny, and renewed HOPE or reward. The decision is necessarily painful and sobering. This is not a time for flipping a coin, especially if it involves other people’s lives. And most decisions do.

This isn’t just a matter of finding happiness or contentment. I’m talking about purpose. I’m talking about being the best version of yourself, and using your unique gifts to make the world better for your having done so. Are you putting hopes in things that threaten the HOPE that gives your life its meaning? If you want to hold onto HOPE, you may have to give up hope in something – whether it be a job (or career), a belief, a stance, a relationship, an obligation – that is keeping you from it (and I’m not talking about something that is just making it more of a challenge to achieve, but is prohibiting your success). I think it is interesting to note that the Greek word that is translated as perfect, or complete, in the Christian New Testament, has the connotation of having reached one’s purpose. Such as when Paul said that he had finished the race (2 Tim 4:7).

If the hamster spends his days and his energy, running…and ends up lying dead beside the wheel where he gave it his all, only inches from where he began, will we say that he finished the race? I guess it’s possible, if you think that a hamster’s purpose is only to provide his captors with amusement.

As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews has said, we must throw off every weight that hinders us and trips us up, so that we are able to run the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1). An ill-placed hope can become an anchor or a stumbling block if it keeps us from fulfilling our own unique calling. And this is coming from one who HOPEs, and finds it heart-breaking to give up on anything or anyone. But I have found it to be more heart-breaking for a person to have gained the world and lost himself in the process.

Insanity has been defined as continually doing the same things and expecting different results. Sometimes we need to realize that it is insane to keep hoping that something or someone is going to change, if the record clearly shows otherwise. But you have to decide for yourself when that is. You will have to deal with the consequences whatever you decide.

I just cut my rose bushes back, as I do every February. Some people would  think that I’d killed them. They definitely look that way. But soon, if you visit me, you’ll see lots of beauty emerging from those now-dead-looking plants. I still have to wait for the new growth. But the pruning was necessary first. A necessary ending.  And now the nurturing. Then the beauty. Ahhh, HOPE!

Waiting on Superman: In the Deli

Yesterday evening, I got hungry (as I often do) and, to be honest, in need of company (as I often am). I went to my usual “Cheers” (You know – the place you want to go because “everybody knows your name”). For me, that place is my local McAlister’s Deli. I eat there quite often, for many reasons. I first started going there for their amazing sweet tea (I AM a southern boy.) I like many things on their menu, but honestly it’s their tea that kept me coming back. But, besides their tea, it’s the people they hire that make me like to hang out there. It’s like a second home and they make me feel like a part of the family. Anybody who has been working there for any length of time knows me. When I go to one of the Subway’s that I often visit, I hear, “Welcome to Subway!” And that’s nice. But when I enter MY McAlister’s, I usually hear, “Hey Mr. Bruce!”

So I went to dinner there yesterday. I sat in one of my usual spots. On this occasion it was the table on the end, against the windows in the front, where I always sit facing the entrance, and past that, the front counter where you place your order. Amber brought me my food. She has been one of the assistant managers there for a couple of years, I guess. It’s hard for me to judge time sometimes because it has begun to move so quickly for me. She asked me how I was doing, and said, “Hey, I like your shirt.” I was wearing a black t-shirt with a modern Superman emblem across the chest, under a dark blue, unzipped hoody. I thanked her, and kind of laughed. I told her that I had two t-shirts with the same emblem on each (The other one was dark blue, rather than black.) and that, of all the shirts in my closet, those two shirts get the most compliments. I almost never get complimented for any other shirt. But total strangers will tell me that they like my shirt when I am wearing the “S”. Why is that?

Then Amber and I had a deeply intellectual conversation about our need for, and connection with, superheroes. And I shared my dismay about the upcoming “Batman vs. Superman” movie because I didn’t care for the concept of pitting superheroes against each other. And she shared with me her dismay for the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman.

We seem to have a need for superheroes. I think we need to believe that someone will come along and save us, and set things right. We need to believe in the power of good to overcome that which is not.

I guess it was a couple months ago (remember what I said about judging time). I was in my office/classroom at school. Size-wise it’s kind of between the two. I have a teacher’s desk, file cabinets and bookcases, and a row of tables against the wall opposite of my desk with five student computers on them. Students work with their backs to me so that I can see all of the monitors. Anyway…despite an effort to maintain professional decorum, teachers sometime slip and call each other by first name. When a teacher came into my office, and addressed me as Bruce, one of my students, with an over-developed sense of selective hearing, started to refer to me as Bruce Wayne from that moment on.

I have to admit, I kind of like the idea of being equated with someone with a secret passion to right wrongs and to protect the weak. It got me thinking about other Bruce’s of superherodom. Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight, or Batman. Bruce Banner as the Hulk. Bruce Lee was…well, Bruce Lee. You can’t tell me he doesn’t fit in this list. I mean, the man had some REAL super powers. I mean, if Bruce Lee were still alive today, do you think that people would be telling Chuck Norris jokes? But, I digress. Then of course, Bruce Springsteen, the Boss; and Bruce Almighty. I further digress.

Batman, however, is a little dark for me. A big part of what drives him is a desire for revenge. Maybe that’s why, if I’m to be equated with a superhero, I’d rather it be Superman. Superman, though he deals with very human things, like a desire to love and be loved, sacrifices his own desires for the sake of others. His goals seem bent toward justice for all. He’s more relatable for me. Even the part about the Kryptonite weakness.

I may not be a real superhero. But if I were, I think I know what my superpower would be. Accommodation. Accommodation is the ability to be flexible in a situation, and to opt for the comfort of others (like my cat, Abby, in my first blog entry, “Why Disturb the Cat?”).

Being a special education teacher, it is a big part of what I do. I accommodate a student by compensating for their disabilities. An accommodation can be as simple as a pencil grip to compensate for a lack of fine motor control or muscle weakness, or special tinted overlays to reduce glare and make it easier for a student with vision problems to focus and read. Or, in some cases accommodations can be much grander. We are all accommodated much more than we think. That’s what customer service is, after all. I guess it makes sense that I would end up in a career field that uses my superpower.

However, my superpower is often also my undoing – my Kryptonite so to speak. I may exercise my power by choosing to accommodate your wants or needs. You, however, may view it as a weakness that you can manipulate and use in your favor. What I do as an expression of love, becomes what is simply expected. The gift is not received with gratitude, but is taken with contempt. “Why didn’t you do more?” “Why did you pick that color?” What took you so long?” “But I was expecting…”. True givers often are treated as, and perceived as, doormats. But accommodation is a power exercised from the heart (The Bible teaches us that Jesus “laid down his life” willingly). And, when treated as anything other, it feels like rejection and an act of futility. If you want to see how much power accommodation has to change the world, simply be grateful (at least once in a while). Accept it as a gift willingly given. Keep your Kryptonite encased in lead (and buried). Maybe more superheroes will emerge.

As I got up from my table on the end last night, I made my usual pass by the front counter on my way out the door, stopping for one last refill of sweet tea. As Amber turned her back to me to fill my cup from the dispenser, Eric (the other assistant manager at my McAlister’s) who was behind the counter to my right, said, “Hey Bruce! How you doin’ tonight? Hey, I like that shirt!”

In case you didn’t catch the wordplay in my use of the now-familiar title “Waiting on Superman”…I was at a deli, wearing a Superman shirt…and, though they don’t really have waiters there in the truest sense, Amber did bring me my food and refill my tea…thus, she was waiting…well you understand.