The balance between hope and despair

The concept of fairness is deeply ingrained in us. Like a red thread running through our lives, a structure that makes it easier to find our way – a Northern star guiding our decisions.

It determines how we treat others. For most of us, it is self-evident.

But sometimes we hit a wall. Something happens that suddenly throws us off balance. We lose a loved one. We lose our job. Accidents happen, disaster strikes, we get seriously ill… 

This can trigger a reflex making us ask: why me? What did I do to deserve it? Could I have prepared myself better, or somehow prevented it?

Interestingly, we think that we are somehow responsible, beating ourselves up for it, instead of acknowledging that this is just life – a random event happening which never follows the principle of fairness. 

To be a good person striving to do the right thing is unfortunately no guarantee to prevent bad things from happening to us. Fairness is rather an expectation we carry around: an expectation that life should be fair, if we just take the right decisions and behave in a just manner.

The frustrating realization that the world is actually not fair shows the deep disappointment we feel when someone else (or the universe for that matter) doesn’t keep their part of the (expected) bargain. 

We expect the world to be different. We even raise our children to act in a fair manner, to treat others well – like we want to be treated ourselves. And it’s in fact our children who remind us by shouting out “that’s not fair” that they indeed have a very good sense of how things ought to be.

It also triggers a deep fear when realizing that what we took for granted is suddenly caving in like a house of cards. We feel that we lose control falling into a bottomless pit. It is scary. It is threatening. That’s why the reflex in us is so strong to deny it: we are trying to run away from our suffering.

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

It takes courage to embrace our suffering, to endure a difficult and painful situation and not give up. Especially when it is challenging our beliefs and our inner framework. It can happen anytime and to everyone, and we cannot prepare ourselves for it.

It helps to understand that bad events happening to us are a part of life.

But our inner values and principles which are guiding us, are another part of it. 

These two are not mutually exclusive but rather different companions on our life’s journey. We will encounter the whole spectrum of it all the time. And we cannot expect to have one without the other.

The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope. (Barack Obama)

But what we can control is how we deal with what comes our way. The world becomes what we make of it, and that’s visible every day. 

Everything we convey through your actions or inaction, each word we say or don’t, each act of kindness or the opposite, changes the world. It makes a difference. So, let’s become more aware of how much influence we actually have. On others and on ourselves.

Does a bad thing happening to me make me question my approach in life? Does it make me lose my faith in myself and others? In humanity?

Would I throw my beliefs overboard?

I believe that hanging on to what is guiding me in life is even more important in such testing situations. There is a reason for why I have decided long ago to live my life based on certain principles.

What we can do:

  • Moving through it with patience and compassion for yourself is very important, in whatever sort of such situation you are. To have others supporting you is wonderful, but don’t forget to support yourself in the same way: speak kindly to yourself.
  • Ground yourself, calm yourself down, simply to avoid your nervous system going into overdrive. Meditation and breathing exercises can be a very powerful tool to help.
  • Cry when you feel like it. Once you stop you will notice that the earth has not opened up and swallowed you. You are still there. And then allow yourself time and space to heal. 

Nothing is as important as my peace, my joy. I smile to everything, even to my suffering, my difficulties. That is a practice of freedom. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

It is hard to lean into our pain, while staying confident and trusting ourselves at the same time. But it is important not to ignore the pain. Acknowledge it, but at the same time do not give up hope. Savour the precious moments of joy in your life.

We have every reason to trust that we can move through the hardships in life. Because there is constant change – in either way, hence also to the positive.

Trust yourself.


If you are interested in meditation and finding inner peace, I can recommend the Plum Village App.

The podcast “The Way Out Is In” offers profound, insightful conversations based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of Buddhist philosophy.

How to navigate these times of uncertainty

“We must not lose faith”, my colleague Elena recently said to me. How true. I have been thinking about it ever since. More than one month now into the madness of this terrible war in Ukraine, unfolding while we are watching, often in real time through social media, how people lose their homes and their lives, cities being reduced to ashes. One month that has shattered quite a few firm-held beliefs, exposed illusions and left us severely concerned for the future.

But it also brought so many of us closer together, standing firm in our resolve to do the right thing and not let evil win. Hanging in midair between desperate hope and deepest sorrow. If only the power of our thoughts could make it all end – and yet it doesn’t.

I am certainly not the only one feeling this way, that’s why we see so much determination among people, so many outstretched hands and support. People go out of their way to help.

We have to hold on. No matter how nerve-wrecking it may be, how easy it might seem to slip into despair. We got to have faith and hold on even more. We owe it to those experiencing unfathomable suffering. We need to be strong – for their sake.

Yes, our influence on what happens is very limited. But I feel that we nevertheless must conjure the power of good, relentlessly. To create a counterbalance that will turn the ship around one day. 

“I can’t say I have confidence in the future, but I have a lot of confidence in its unpredictability, based on the fact that the past has regularly delivered surprises…. We need to have confidence that surprise and uncertainty are unshakable principles, if we want to have confidence in something. And recognize that in that uncertainty is room to act, to try to shape a future that will be determined by what we do in the present.” (Rebecca Solnit)

In the space of the past weeks we had our share of surprises already. And so had our governments, realizing that their citizens are far more decent and reasonable in the face of adversity than they had previously assumed. Yes, people take responsibility, in many different ways, often unusual and surprising.

Proving again that most people are indeed pretty decent. The worse the situation gets the more we must be at our best. And that is the only thing we can do. Good and evil usually lie very close to one other in daily life. Sometimes, they are even two sides of the same coin. What does matter is on which side we decide to focus on.

It’s good to remind ourselves that nothing is perfect in any way: not people, nor their behaviour nor any decisions taken. It can always only be as good as it gets. We need to bear that in mind, as there never is a perfect solution. But focusing on the good does make a real difference, and effecting change inevitably requires making adjustments while moving along. We’ll get there.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. (Desmond Tutu)

Only in the darkness can you see the stars. (Martin Luther King)

At first, I was watching the news daily, almost continuously, longing from day to day for the war to finally stop, hoping not more lives to get lost, not more destruction to happen. As if turning away somehow meant abandoning these people in my thoughts.

Imagine having to flee your country because your life is threatened, but knowing full well the place you called home could be erased from the map forever. What a profound sadness this evokes. I understand how people can get uprooted by such a traumatic experience of losing everything they hold dear.

However, we are doomed to watch from the sidelines. Failing to push events to the back of my mind, I struggled to focus on my own life which did me no good. Once these images entered into my dreams at night I just couldn’t go on like this. That’s when I drastically reduced my news intake. 

What also really helped to calm me down was taking care of a little lamb in my friends’ flock of sheep. It is the second time in the last years that I am helping to raise a lamb, and spending time with these peaceful animals in the stable every evening, knowing they trust me, is so good for the heart and soul. 

My hope is on the things we don’t see, things going on behind the scenes, hidden from our view. The people who covertly connect, negotiate and work on solutions. I put my hopes on them. Not all is lost. Help is coming from unexpected sides as well, and maybe we will never even know about all of it.

We Europeans are painfully aware of how much more is at stake now. It’s also our freedom which is being defended in Ukraine. 

There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster. (Dalai Lama)

It is hard to bear looking evil in the face – and that’s what we are doing, listening to the pleas for help knowing full well we ordinary citizens cannot do more. While hoping for a miracle where to turn our thoughts? And what to focus on?

It does not help anyone to put our own lives on hold. We need to uphold ourselves and others in these times of uncertainty, sending signals of hope in the dark:

  • Getting involved helping the refugees of war in whatever manner we can. It might feel like a small contribution but it aids healing and gives a sense of purpose.
  • However horrible it is what we are witnessing: the world doesn’t stop turning and there are people who need us to be at our best: our children, friends or colleagues, or whoever is in need of a helping hand. 
  • Continuing to share our knowledge, particularly with the young, supporting them and making them stronger, is one of the best investments into the future.
  • Be creative. Creation is the opposite of destruction. It enlightens our hearts, and bears witness to the resilient human spirit.
  • Taking care of our mental health is essential. To witness a war unfolding up close is a nightmare, so cut yourself some slack, and take time to re-charge, particularly if involved as a volunteer in helping the refugees. And avoid consuming news in any form in the evening if you want to get a good nights’ sleep.
  • It is not wrong to cherish and appreciate the good we have. We need to enjoy what life offers us. Carpe diem.
  • Be more conscious of the beauty of ordinary things, grateful for their existence and the joy they give us in this very moment. They will keep us grounded. 

This is very much a reminder of our own mortality and how to use our time on earth well.

I will never apologize for embracing joy and beauty – even when the world is falling apart – because joy and beauty are my fuel for activism. (Karen Walrond)

The pointless and evil can never win. That I do believe.

Trust the voice within and learn to let go

Focus on what you can control – what is in your own sphere of influence. Easier said than done. Although knowing it well I regularly happen to fall into the same trap again and again, getting worked up about things I simply cannot change – because I am not the decision maker. Some examples:

  • Government decisions
  • The slow pace at which much needed change happens
  • Climate change
  • Other people not doing what I would like them to do (a particularly ridiculous one)
  • Not to forget, the covid pandemic changing our lives forever

I need to remind myself from time to time that the only things I really can control is my perspective and my own behaviour. My response to the events of life – which is my choice. It always comes down to mindset, ultimately. 

Why is it so hard to let go?

It’s not as if I’d release control by letting go – because I have none in the first place. What I find so hard to bear is this helpless feeling of having to accept the inevitable: things taking a wrong turn in my opinion and me being unable to stop it. 

Take climate change for example. Knowing that decisions taken by our governments to combat it are still not sufficient, which will cause even more irreversible damage to the planet thus impacting all our lives, is a hard pill to swallow. Like a cloud casting a shadow I cannot chase away.

Often it’s not difficult to anticipate an outcome, but I simply don’t want this outcome to materialize itself. Which makes it even harder for me not to give in to despair.

So, whenever such inner dialogue starts to take up too much space in my head, I try to actively stop myself and re-direct my thoughts. Merely hoping for a twist of fate in form of a nice surprise which will prove me wrong in the end, because the human factor in the equation is never predictable (which of course, could be a blessing or a curse either way). 

Until then I talk myself into having trust that things will work out somehow, and not worry too much in the process. 

I don’t always succeed though.

There are two ways to be. One is at war with reality and the other is at peace. (Byron Katie)

And so, I experience a recurring pattern of complaining and worrying about something I have no influence on. Maybe I should rather be happy about becoming aware of this behaviour much earlier now than I did decades ago. My “worrying turnaround cycle” indeed got faster which is one small success after all. 

Probably, that’s all I can expect? Is this a lifetime exercise about strengthening my awareness, achieving patience and some sort of equanimity? Learning to encounter the events of life with a little more assuredness, confidence and trust? 

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating to stay indifferent in the face of the many, many problems life shoves into our path. We certainly can and should take responsibility to do something – but it needs to be a contribution which we can control and is worth our time. 

For all else beyond our control we do not have a magic wand to prevent or reverse events – however unfortunate that might feel sometimes. Accepting this is really hard. Some days it feels like advancing on a thin wire while struggling to keep my balance. 

It takes trust – especially in people who have not given up yet holding all of us in balance – like a net supporting us. But first and foremost, we need to have trust in ourselves, because we are a part of this support net. 

Learning from the pandemic situation

Think about how the pandemic has pushed us violently out of our comfort zone since it started to change our lives forever. Suddenly, there was a lot more to worry about than usual, and far more uncertainty. And nobody could escape it. The situation asked a lot of us. Flexibility, trust, perseverance to name but a few – and that certainly is not easy to muster for everyone. 

It is tiring to hang in there for such a long time, in this rollercoaster of emotions, hopes and fears. What fascinates me: there is still hope. We still do not give up. We might be angry, frustrated and sad, but we still hope for the return of some form of normal life which will give us back at least some sort of control. 

Surely, we cannot expect everything going according to plan because it never does anyway. But giving up planning for the most part of the last two years was a surrender to reality for me. And a big test of (not only my) patience. Being so used to planning ahead and looking for solutions I felt stuck. 

Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace. (Epictetus)

Then I decided to take it as an exercise in letting go. Allowing myself more room than ever before. “Leaning into discomfort” (Brené Brown) is essential in a challenging situation, but we often don’t dare to go down that road. To try it out lets us grow, however scary it feels. And it’s totally ok to be scared when doing hard things.

I was not alone in this. The many conversations with friends and colleagues who were struggling themselves while moving along, the mutual encouragement, all these little signs of support and understanding did and still do help. 

To move forward trusting my voice within. Hesitating, stumbling, sometimes falling – and then getting back up.

Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on. (Eckhart Tolle)

Now things do start to look better, even with a bumpy road ahead. Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And once again we see that life takes unexpected turns, and not necessarily always bad ones.

My best piece of news I found last week: two Texas scientists developed a cheaper, easier to make and to distribute anti-covid vaccine which they do not intend to patent, so anyone could reproduce it. Thus enabling low-income countries to make it available faster to far larger parts of their population. 

It means we are coming closer now to global vaccine equity because two people did the right thing without hesitation, hoping others will follow their example.

If we ever needed proof that not all is lost, here you go.

The past two years have put a spotlight on many things. Not only on what does not work well and where our priorities should lie, but also on what we are capable of. 

What we can control – and what we need to live with.

Where we should take action – and where we need to let go.

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