Holding on to hope
Every year, as we enter into December, I can feel the emotional collective thermometer rising. Smooth Radio plays incessantly it’s the most magical time of the year, while for many people, especially those who had significant childhood losses, it is actually the time of the year they dread the most. It is sufficient to get any glimpse on the news or social media to get an instant sense of despair about the state of the world. This week, I read a brilliant article about the worrying tendencies to silence debate and segregate society into camps and while I was considering posting it on social media, I paused and told myself that I don’t fancy getting attacked, another sign of the censorship we are all taking for granted these days, which made me even more worried! At times driven by fear and devastation such as during a pandemic, the popular mantra is that we should all hold on to hope through not recognising the elephant in the room, through adhering to a mainstream rhetoric and not having the right to question it. Yet, in my view, this is a recipe for despair and loss of hope rather than the other way round.
There were several sessions in my practice this week where people expressed despair, and suicide was the main topic of discussion in a group I run. Another topic that kept coming up during the week in various encounters was the state of the NHS. The NHS is so deeply culturally engrained in British society that again, it is one of the establishments that doesn’t feel safe to have a debate about, almost like a kind of Santa. And who would want to deconstruct and question Santa? Yet, I ‘ve heard stories this week about people ringing the NHS mental health teams in a state of suicidal crisis and being told to take a warm bath and have a cup of tea or others being called in for radical surgery without being given notice or receiving information that would help them plan it. And of course, the usual mantra is again, the NHS is under-resourced and struggling (true of course!), we should be grateful for getting anything at all and we should certainly not complain. Of course, complaining or blaming are not usually constructive, but what about respecting oneself and one’s right to feel safe through social structures of support and care? Living in a society where care is in hugely short supply at the moment feeds suicidal despair and the mental health crisis which we are all in the midst of.
So, how can we hold on to hope? One of Freud’s infamous statements is that psychoanalysis can turn neurotic misery into everyday unhappiness. Admittedly, this does not sound very hopeful in the times we live in. We all want a magic wand to take us out of our misery of watching the news of a never ending pandemic, continuous travel restrictions, more and more vaccines that we all need to have. The problem is that we are also often promised that such a magic wand exists, that suffering can possibly be avoided and from an existential point of view, this is hardly likely. We will all face trauma, loss, illness and ultimately death in the course of our life. Yet, I would also certainly agree that life can be magical at times, though these times are often transient moments, such as when we get an intense experience of physical pleasure or connection with another human being or an animal or a glimpse on the wander of nature or of the human mind. I also think there is some magic experienced during the process of therapy through insight, those moments where things fall into place and make sense, and that this is yet another underestimated source of pleasure for all of us, i.e., understanding ourselves and our feelings and the empowerment and empathy this can generate. And this brings me to Freud’s follow up statement after the above rather pessimistic quote. He says:
With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better equipped against that unhappiness.
(Freud, Studies on Hysteria, 1895)
I do not believe that having therapy is the only way of achieving good mental health and as much as I think that many people avoid the process through a huge fear of facing up to their psychic reality, which is actually to their detriment, surely, there are other ways. A walk with a friend, a sense of belonging in a community, any kind of creative engagement with life can do wanders for our mental health. Yet, avoiding ‘everyday unhappiness’ rather than learning how to engage with it and still keep one’s perspective never does. So, perhaps holding on to hope and holding on to reality may be more compatible than we may think in the first instance.
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