When the Unthinkable Has Happened: Choice #3

In this series, I’ve been talking about the choices we have, even in the face of unthinkable situations like a pandemic or a war.

In Episode 42, I shared with you the first choice we all have which is to direct your thoughts on purpose to create calm if you wish to do so. In Episode 43, I shared with you the second choice to accept and even process your anxiety if you wish to do so.

Today I would like to offer that we have the choice to move  between despair and hope. 

Here are the highlights:

Why our brains naturally focus on worst-case scenarios

What it means to be a “hopeful” person

Is despair written in your DNA?

Why cultivating hope is important — and possible

The three axes of optimism

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Choice # 3: Hope versus Despair 

Hello global nomads.

I am ending this miniseries inspired by the dramatic war that started in Ukraine by sharing with you the third choice we can all make when the unthinkable happens. If you are listening live, the war is going on. Millions of refugees are fleeing, and civilians are the vast majority of casualties.

In Episode 42, I shared with you the first choice we all have: which is to direct your thoughts on purpose to create calm if you wish to do so. In Episode 43, I shared with you the second choice to accept and even process your anxiety if you wish to do so. Today I would like to offer that we have the choice to oscillate between despair and hope. 

Many of you will disagree. How can I offer hope when so many Ukrainians, especially civilians are being killed each day, when they lose everything they have, when as I record this episode we count already more than 2 million refugees?

This probably seems very naïve when we look at the world, its history and current state.

Just remember that the worst case scenario is what your brain naturally offers. It’s a normal part of being human. It does this for a reason: to protect you. I will never say that we should ignore or pretend this scenario will not happen. The worst case scenario mirrors our deepest fears and fear has a function. It has important messages for us. 

But choosing to believe the worst will always happen  will not help Ukrainians, nor will it help you take the actions you might want to take. This is why I would like you to open up to the idea that it might be useful to cultivate hope instead..

Do you consider yourself hopeful in general? 

The first thing I’d like to make clear is that being hopeful or being someone who despairs more easily is not part of our DNA. Not at all. It seems like it is. But it’s not.

Your upbringing, social conditioning, what you read, what you watch, what you focus on programs your brain to think a certain way. 

So if a tendency towards hope is not something we’re born with, what is it?

Being hopeful: is a tendency to expect the best in all things

Being in despair: is the tendency to believe the worst will happen

Therefore – it’s is a state of mind. And that’s the good news. 

Feeling despair or hope is not an intrinsic characteristic of an individual

  •     It’s in our thought patterns:

When things are hard, hopeful people think that things will work out, get better, change for the better. They look at the future in a rather favorable way. 

On the contrary, people who tend to imagine a future scenario that is not favorable, that does not move in the right direction will look at the worst-case scenario, they think things do not work out or always change for the worse

  This is good news because:

o   this is something you can change if you want to and know how.

o   We can change the way we think, what I like to call our thought patterns.  

o   It does not say anything about us, it’s only patterns of thoughts that can be changed.

Maybe you encounter this in your conversations about Ukraine. For some the darkest scenario is inevitable and we imagine a third world war with nukes. There are so many reasons to despair. For some, this possibility is balanced by other possibilities: the final push towards green energy and non-dependency on fossil fuels, a unified Europe, a real stop to money laundering, a human immigration policy respectful of human rights.

Does this compensate for war crimes? For loss of lives? No. Of course not. But it is a glimmer of hope in a dark time.

I was invited to a dinner party over the weekend with close friends of ours who wanted to introduce us to another family. Because of a multitude of covid episodes the dinner was postponed, and it just happened that we met this family eventually. 

After the usual greetings, I ask them where they are from. The husband tells me he is from Ukraine. I’ll never forget the look on his face. His brother and family tried to escape , spent a full night at the train station and could not get on a train. They are living in one of the main bombarded cities. Of course his mind goes to the worst case scenarios. For good reasons. The fears are real. 

But as I chatted with his wife, I understood they still had hope: hope that his family would find help, hope they would find room on a train, hope in the fact that they were still together. Hoping they would find a way, gave him the courage to search for solutions from this side. He is talking to multitudes of people to find a way to get them out. If he can still keep a flicker of hope alive, surely we can too.

 But those of us who don’t have family in danger may still feel despair, in part because we feel guilty about having hope. It’s easy for us – our lives, our families, our countries aren’t at risk! But I suggest giving yourself space to see and appreciate progress for future generations does not mean forgetting about people suffering. Seeing some hope in greener fuels and a unified Europe doesn’t mean you’re ignoring the suffering of the Ukrainians. There is this idea that if we do not spend all our mental time thinking about the horrific situation, there must be something wrong with us. 

I really want to challenge that. Let me explain why cultivating hope can create real value for you and in the world.

There are two reasons for wanting to cultivate hope

  •     So, the first reason, I want to offer today is that we will feel better overall if we have positive thoughts rather than catastrophic thoughts.
  •     I will immediately feel emotions, which will be much more pleasant in general.
  •     On the other hand, if I tell myself that I am not going to get out of this crisis, that I will not find solutions, it will go from bad to worse and I will literally think that I will die. 
  •     This emotional state is not nothing, it’s not not important because our emotional life is our way to experience the world. This is what defines our life experience. 
  •     The only interface between us and the world: the interface of our senses (physical sensation) and the emotional interface: how do we feel emotionally?

Second reason: Positive Vision:

  •     When I am hopeful, I imagine the future and think that overall, it will be fine and I will find solutions, I will get where I want, I will make it work.
  •     Feeling hopeful will put me into action to search for ways to create this optimistic vision and therefore make the achievement of this vision more probable. 
  •     It is when I think that it is possible that I can get out of the crisis, that the situation improves. This is when I find solutions or feel emotions that will put me into action to find a way out, solutions to get through the situation in a way that will be favorable to me and to others.
  •     This will create a totally different life experience.

I hope I convinced you of the value of cultivating hope over despair. And now I would like to show you how this can be done. 

 Learned hope is a concept from positive psychology’s founding father, Martin Seligman, that argues that we can cultivate a positive perspective

Seligman talks about the three axes of optimism. 

  1.   Temporary/Permanent 

When we’re in a crisis, we may feel like this horrible situation is going to go on forever. But that’s despair talking. Hope says the crisis is temporary. Even something as final and permanent as death can be seen through the lens of hope: yes, the person is gone forever, but the pain I feel will lessen. I can honor and remember them forever, but I choose to see my suffering as temporary.

Ask yourself:

  •     Do I see the current situation as temporary or permanent? 
  •     What part of the situation is temporary?

In a year, five years from now – do I think what is happening now will still exist? 

  1.   Local/General

In a crisis, a person who is hopeful will keep in mind how this crisis is local in his or her life. It’s limited to certain areas and certain relationships and does not impact all parts of her life. Even though this relationship with my mother is troubled, for instance, there is still joy with my children, joy at my work, comfort in my home. Someone who has a tendency to despair will let the negative leak all over his life, even where it doesn’t belong. 

Ask yourself:

  •     Do I see the crisis as having a localized or a generalized impact on my life?
  •     In what ways is my difficulty localized to a specific domain of my life? 
  •     Do I think this difficulty will impact all areas of my life? 
  •     Does it negatively impact my whole life experience?

The global pandemic is a good example. 

 The corona virus affected my life and my experience in a local way, because my husband was not able to go to the office for two years, our family could not visit us. It impacted my parenting life because my kids were homeschooled for 10 months, and we all needed to wear masks to see people.

 But there is a whole lot of my life experience that has not been impacted at all by the confinement, the times when I shower, I have breakfast, lunch, dinners, the times maybe when I practice music, on Sunday mornings that we spend hanging out, playing games, reading and bedtime routines, preparing meals as a family, dinner discussions etc,

  •     This is not impacted because I would have done the exact same thing if there was no pandemic, and I would have done this anyway. 
  1.   Changeable/ Unchangeable

Finally, and importantly, is the question of ourselves as agents of change.

  •     Do I think I can have an impact on the crisis?
  •     Am I able to change something in my experience or the experience of those around me in this crisis? 
  •     Am I personally able to bring about the outcome that seems more favorable to me?

Changeable / unchangeable 

This axis consists in questioning the impact we can have on the crisis. The idea is not to say that we have the possibility as an individual to change something that is outside our control. 

I am not going to tell myself that I will be able to put an end to this pandemic on my own even if I would like to very much. 

In this war situation, I am not going to tell myself I can find a solution.

But in this crisis situation, the question I’m going to ask myself: 

Do I think I can have an impact at my level? Do I think I could change something in my experience of this crisis and the experience of those around me? 

This is going to be a very important ingredient between hope and despair. 

Hope will focus all its attention and the maximum of resources to invest in the impact that we can have. How can I accompany myself, allow my emotions, how do I want to manage my thoughts, take care of myself, how do I want to occupy, nourish my mind, my body, what do I want to create? How can I improve my life in the broad sense and also in what way by my availability, my actions, the gestures towards the people around me and on the main subject of this crisis, how will I choose to mobilize my energy and resources and exercise all that is in my power to promote the most favorable outcome?

The hopeful vision will say: 

Yes we are facing a crisis, a crisis of a certain magnitude and a certain scale, but I see how individually I can act in the right direction for me, the people who I am surrounding myself. I am looking for opportunities to promote the most favorable outcome. 

How far can I change my experience of the situation or the situation itself?

To summarize these three axes between hope and despair. 

The first axis is do I think that this crisis situation is permanent, is its effect temporary or permanent?

The second axis: Do I tend to think that the impact of the crisis situation is circumscribed and local to certain areas of my life or do I think that its impact is absolutely general and affects all areas of my life?  Or all areas of the planet when it comes to pandemic?

The third axis is do I feel in a position where I am able to change or influence my experience of the situation?  

Your work this week:

If you are ready to try cultivating hope, I invite you to ask yourself those three questions:

What is temporary and what is permanent

What is local and what is general?

What is changeable and unchangeable in the situation in Ukraine or the situation you are eventually facing in your life?

Then decide what you want to believe. You might still want to believe this is a chamberlain moment and we are not seizing the opportunity to save ukrainiens. You might decide something else. After all, no one can predict what happens. But we can be sure of one thing. 

Thank you for taking the time to be with me today. What would be wonderful is for you to rate the podcast and write a review on your usual platform so others can find it too.

Next week, on Love Your expat Life I have the pleasure to welcome a wonderful guest who experienced dramatic events and share how this impacted her life and how it helped her create the life she wanted to create,

Stay tuned. Have a good week. Bye for now