A Secret I Learned That Determines My Level of Hope
By Tim Elmore
I met a young woman recently who suffered a tragic accident on the freeway. We hear stories like hers far too often. She was hit by a drunk driver in a head-on collision and was hurt so severely that her parents questioned whether they should unplug the machines in the ICU. Miraculously, she survived, yet now lives as a person with quadriplegia in a wheelchair.
Her parents’ grief was deepened when they discovered that the intoxicated man who hit her survived with only a few scratches and bruises. How could this injustice occur? The young woman, however, has maintained a stunning sense of peace and hope through it all.
My greatest question after hearing the story is this: why are the parents so bereaved while their daughter seems fine? I think I might know the answer.
How Does Hope Work?
This story illustrates one of the most complex emotional dilemmas we face. The young woman’s family now suffers more than she does internally. While she faces an external handicap, they are struggling internally even more than she is. Why do some manage pain so positively while others are overwhelmed by it? Reflect on this equation regarding the suffering, the meaning, and the hope we have in life:
Suffering ➗Meaning = Our Level of Hope
The depth of our suffering divided by the depth of the meaning we find in it will determine the level of hope we experience. This equation explains the young woman who was in the accident above. Her suffering was high, but so was the meaning she had through it all. Consider this equation:
- People with a low amount of suffering and a high amount of meaning experience a very high amount of hope in their lives.
- People with a high amount of suffering but a higher amount of meaning will experience a purposeful and satisfying life. (The quadriplegic woman)
- People with a high amount of suffering but a low amount of meaning will experience less hope. (Her parents)
- People with a low amount of both suffering and meaning may have an up-and-down experience with their level of hope. (Most people)
The key to finding hope in suffering is meaning. Discovering deep meaning through your suffering is the only way to flourish in pain. The woman in the accident chose a transcendent perspective that enabled her to see a meaningful future. I have heard many stories throughout history where we can apply this equation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer endured a Nazi prison camp, even brutal torture. Like the woman, he embraced a transcendent focus, being a man of faith, and kept his hope. Similarly, Victor Frankl taught that finding purpose in his future and knowing that his experience could one day help others was the only thing that made his suffering in the concentration camp a little more bearable. He survived and wrote the book Man’s Search For Meaning. These stories highlight what social psychologists call “sensemaking.” We must make sense of the pain or suffering we face, or we’ll be overwhelmed with pessimism or cynicism.
This is when we discover a paradox.
Insights on Meaning and Hope
First, we often wish for a life without obstacles or friction. There can be no traction without friction. A life without tension is also a life without traction. Removing all resistance removes all traction, and when everything is easy, nothing may be satisfying or meaningful in the end. Our lives must make use of suffering. We must welcome it.
Second, we can find meaning despite our suffering, but it’s even better when we can find meaning because of our suffering. Both create hopeful mindsets, but I have found that hope is even more robust when the very suffering fosters a new level of hopefulness. When I contracted diabetes, I recognized how I became more disciplined as a person. When I was in a plane crash, I realized how much more purposeful I became afterward about my mortality.
Third, we can choose our emotions. There are often reasons why we feel hopeless, but we must treat emotions as an informant, not a commander. Once you identify why you feel the way you do, why not exchange that emotion for a different, more informed response? Once you gaze inward, gaze outward so you can add value to those around you. You’ll find meaning and see the glass is half full, not half empty, because you are filling the glass.
Chris Coelho is one of my heroes. He suffered a tragic circumstance early in his life that left him confined to a wheelchair with no use of his legs and limited use of his arms for life. But I never saw a victim mindset in him. He was active and making the most of his situation. When he later married, he and his wife lived a life of joy, meaning, and service to others. He somehow recognized the equation: suffering divided by meaning equals high levels of hope.
Remember—if you can’t manage your emotions, you can’t manage your life. We must learn to exchange a hopeless emotion for a useful one in response. When you are mentally fit, you bounce back quickly. You don’t dwell on disadvantages. You can’t control what happened, but you can control what happens next. It’s your choice.