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.

Becoming ourselves

We shall not stay attached to our views, and we certainly cannot do it anyway in the long run, simply because we do change. And so do our views. We learn so much more during our lifetime, and that keeps on changing us. 

This Buddhist concept of impermanence is actually something very positive, because it offers development, growth, using our potential. It offers new experiences, new pathways to be walked on, new opportunities for happiness.

It might sound sad at first, that everything disappears eventually and nothing stays the same. We are clinging to notions or things, often desperately, even if they are harmful for ourselves, because we don’t want to let go. Change scares us. We do not know what the future will bring, and we want to eliminate the insecurity which we fear might throw us off balance. It feels easier to stay within our comfort zone. But isn’t the potential for growth outside of it?

Do not think for one minute that because you are who you are, you cannot be who you imagine yourself to be. (Jedidah Isler)

We never stop evolving. And it is never done with a one time learning. 

Think about when you do a training or learn something new. If you do not apply it in your daily life, you lose it. It slips away to the back of your mind and you cannot even remember a lot of it after some time. It needs constant practice to become part of your daily routine – work-wise or in private life.

When we learn and evolve we take a step forward. We might experience setbacks, but we need to get up and continue. And take another step. Re-iterate the learning process. There is constant repetition. If we are open for it. Even though it is often painful, exhausting and frustrating.

Having a moment of enlightenment about ourselves, especially about changing our direction in life, does not mean this is a one time event, once and for all, and then we can just go on into this new direction we found, and everything will be fine. 

To be very clear: it is just one step on our continuous journey. We change direction, we change ourselves and how we see life and feel about ourselves, what we do and how we want to live. Nothing remains the same.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. (Lao Tzu)

It took me some time to acknowledge that the difficulties we inevitably experience in life are not something being thrown at us from an evil force to make us miserable. These are actually lessons and exercises we need to go through. And they come in phases. This is just life with all its colours.

Instead of shying away I know now that I actively need to embrace my struggles as an opportunity to learn, change and question my approach in life over and over again, and then transform myself. Clinging to the past might feel comfortable, but I won’t get back what has already passed.

The element of fear is always present, of course. Fear of not managing the change well, of failure with ensuing despair and unhappiness. The fear of the unknown essentially, of insecurity is always lurking in the background.

The usual question “What is the right decision?” comes into my mind every time, however there is not a real right or wrong, it is just a turn into a different direction opening a door to a new world. I also recognize this very strong human desire in me, to apply a final fix and then be happy and have everything sorted in my life. It sometimes feels scary to realize that I am on my own with the decisions I take.

The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What is really important though, is not to beat ourselves up for going through a difficult time again when we already had a similar experience in the past and learnt out of it. We applied our knowledge at that time well and evolved. Now something is coming back – not exactly to haunt us – but to show us that we are not done yet (which we never are), or that something else has changed in the meantime forcing us to face it now.  

My recurring theme in that regard is my strong discipline that I often use to soldier on in a stress situation, ignoring my body’s clear signals for rest, until realizing that my re-surfacing health problems are already a cry for help and that I need to stop, listen and slow down. And that I need to change direction in my life.

Becoming aware of the situation faster and reaching out for help and resources quickly is already a good sign of applied learning from past experience. With time, I got to know myself and the traps I tend to fall into much better.

The package everyone of us carries around – based on how we grew up and our past life experiences – is heavy and does not disappear. The habits we developed are a result of this package, and that’s why the saying “old habits die hard”, describes it so aptly: we cannot get fully rid of it. But we can learn to manage it through a lot of self-awareness and kind reflection, and the will to move forward and eventually beyond it.

While accepting – very importantly – that we are only human, thus never expecting perfection. Being too hard on ourselves for something that we continue to carry around, is not going to do us any good, but is actually a self-created obstacle.

Life is a journey, not a destination. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

So, what to do? Take stock, get clarity about what is going on and why, how we feel about it, and then decide what to do next. We feel in our heart that something is clearly off, and it’s important to find our peace and restore our inner balance.

Easier said than done, as it is of course, far more complex than solving a school assignment or finding a good solution for a work task. That’s why talking to a counselor in such a situation helps a lot, because these professionals can bring our inner thoughts to the surface, helping us to gain valuable insights. 

My experience with such conversations has been thoroughly positive, and I did it more than once in my life. The feedback received about my thoughts and attitudes brought me more clarity because it held a mirror to my face. Whatever insights I gained was never anything that I had not been aware of before deep down within me, but I actually needed to hear it from another person.

And don’t forget: it takes as long as it takes. Impatience is not gonna help. 

It is indeed a journey. 

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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