PTSD Spirituality: PTSD and Hope, Scattered Thoughts

“How and why should we believe there is hope?”

There are many possible responses to this question. And, I myself have asked this same question (more times than I care to really admit), especially as it has to do with my decisions to not commit suicide.

The future is wide open and full of potential. This unknown openness and potential is one reason to risk hope. From the human perspective, the future is not preordained or fixed. The only fixed element is there will be a future with or without us.

Our actions affect our future. And, to state the obvious, the actions of others also, sometimes unfortunately, affect our future. The actions of others can affect my “right now,” my day after tomorrow, as well as my further distant future.

Indeed, non-personal factors can also determine parts of our future. In my own case this includes a variety of physical disabilities as well as the PTSD soul wound. It is hard for me to walk, it is painful for me to walk, and chances are I will not be running cross country races anytime soon. Have I been rendered hopeless? If so, what does that mean?

Hope Means Life

If I give up on hope then I am likely to give up on life.

Keeping a Sense of Perspective

Keeping a sense of proportion is important. Not every case of hopelessness and despair leads to self-harm and suicide. Some situations may very well be hopeless, but our sense of perspective enables us to not engage a despair that will cost us our life.

Our sense of perspective enables us to realize which experiences of hopelessness are material and which are metaphysical. While material difficulties can be painful and severe they do not determine our existential value, we still have value because we are made in the image and likeness of God.

No matter how bad my physical situation may be, or my material or financial situation may be, God’s love for me is not tarnished. I still have value when I allow my viewpoint to include the eternal (Take a look at Luke 6:20-21).

So it is important to maintain perspective about whether something hopeless has a meaningful outcome in metaphysical terms and not merely in the material culture.

  • While I may give up hope for the Seattle Seahawks of having an undefeated season and winning the Super Bowl this year, that does not lead to a form of despair which will cost me my life.
  • While I have no hope that daytime television or talk-radio will ever be creative, enjoyable, life-giving, and honest, it does not instigate the kind of despair that will cost me my life.

But, with PTSD, Hopelessness and Despair Cost Lives

PTSD seeks to crush hope. When it succeeds at this and despair becomes long-running, then the risks of self-harm and suicide can become so great as to cost us our life. In such cases, we often need the help of others to realize we should keep hope and avoid despair. There is no shame in accepting the help of others, especially when an otherwise despairing situation would overwhelm us.

To accept hope and to offer hope are forms of grace.

Hope and Heart

I could count all the things that hinder me, that prevent me from being a more productive member of society, that prevent me from being someone who brings in income to my household instead of being the person who racks up so many expenses. If I make a list of the things I can no longer do I will find it discouraging. If discouragement goes too far, if its waters erode too much of my foundation, I will begin to lose hope.

Notice this word “discouragement,” it literally means to lose heart. The letters C O U R found in words like courage and discouragement have to do with the heart. Discouragement drains away courage, it seeks to take away our heart, our hope.

If we say a person is courageous, in one sense we are saying he has a lot of heart. The origins of the words courage and discourage come from Middle English, Middle French, and Old French. And previous to that, of course, the Latin word for heart, “Cor,” is the source of what later becomes French. If I am discouraged I am in effect disheartened.

It’s rather poetic actually;

if I am discouraged I have lost heart.

If I have lost heart I am losing hope.

The word heart also has other metaphorical uses, but for our purposes its linkage to the words courage and discourage serve us well.

The situation becomes hopeless only if we fully despair. This is kind of a circuitous thing to say because if we are in despair we are without hope.

Yet, it is worth pointing the heart and hope connection out: PTSD wants us to be in despair, it wants us to have no hope.

In this way PTSD can further its goals of alienation, isolation, and self-harm. If I feel that the situation is hopeless, then I will have less resistance to destructive PTSD behaviors such as promiscuity, porn, self-medication, adultery, _______, and _______. You can fill in the additional blanks that also affect you.

Indeed, You Might Find Value in Conducting a Self-Inventory.

If we find ourselves unduly attracted to our harmful PTSD coping behaviors, for example, drinking too much or going on a gambling binge, we can try to reverse engineer the equation. What I mean here is that if I’m attracted to negative behaviors I know that my PTSD is acting up. Having that knowledge enables me to fight back, it helps me regain my own heart, and by doing so I can discover hope.

We can have hope, in spite of how bad things might be right now, because there is a future. As long as there is a future, as long as there is a next moment, next hour, a next day, then it is reasonable and legitimate to be open to the possibility that things can be better.

In other words, as long as there’s a future, we have every right to believe there is hope.

The idea of hope is a recognition of a future where I can still make choices.

The idea of hope is a recognition of possibility.

Holding on to the belief, the reality actually, that you have value beyond our material and sometimes painful physical situation, is key to not being destroyed by PTSD. Knowing that we have value and that we are created in God’s image and likeness, is a validation of our hope.

We must not be seduced by the hopelessness of despair.

I can’t think of a previous time where I’ve thought of despair and seduction in the same sentence. But what PTSD wants to do to us is seduce us into despair. In the past when I have been in despair, felt hopeless, it seemed as if the PTSD licensed me to engage in unseemly behaviors and self-harm.

Feeling that a situation might be hopeless means that I am not likely to take steps that would instill hope (yes, I am not unaware of some of the circuitousness here, but it remains useful all the same). The more harmful steps I take due to hopelessness then the harder it is for me to acknowledge the possibility of hope. PTSD seeks to destroy hope because that means it will be easier to destroy me, possibly by my own hand.

Giving up to despair is the path of least resistance. Since PTSD wears us down, tires us out, it can be easier to give up hope than to try and find more life. Sometimes – most of the time? – we need more than mere personal willpower to resist.

PTSD grinds us down, it beats us up, it wants us to give up any hope that we can feel better.

This grinding us down, this trying to take advantage of any of our weaknesses, is PTSD’s war of attrition against our soul. Sometimes the best we can do is pray that we can hold on a little bit longer, that we can have a bit more of our future. Sometimes my prayer is to just hold on until I feel little bit better and am better situated to protect myself from PTSD. In such a case, hoping to not harm myself and living until the next day is an act of divine grace. If I am still alive the next day, God has validated my hope and my prayer. If I am still alive the next day, then I am the recipient of God’s grace.

Even Jesus Knows the Experience of Hopelessness

When Jesus is on the cross in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark he demonstrates that just like many of us he has experienced hopelessness. In Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus shares the experience of every person who suffers from PTSD who has felt forsaken, even by God.

And every person who suffers PTSD has already shared in the experience of Jesus. We know what it’s like to feel abandoned and hopeless.  To feel forsaken is something we share in common with Jesus.

This feeling of being forsaken, of hopelessness, does not have to be our new normal. As I’ve written elsewhere, PTSD tries to turn normal upside down. Just as God resurrects Jesus, so can we be resurrected from hopelessness.

And, just as the resurrected Jesus carried the signs of the stigmata,

so do we sometimes carry the signs of our own traumatic histories.

How do we believe there is hope? Why should we believe there is hope?

One of the reasons that I believe in hope is that I know it exists (Golly, I sounds so profound at times…Not!). A realistic hope is something that can be experienced. Just as it is difficult to scientifically prove the notion of love it is also difficult to scientifically prove hope. But in each case we know that it exists. We have seen and felt its effects. And most of us also know what it feels like to have the absence of love, the absence of hope, and how painful that is. As I babble on about this it becomes clearer to me that hope and love are metaphysical, they transcend the physical, material, world.

To believe there is hope is to believe in the future.

Hope can be a belief that tomorrow does not have to be as bad as today or yesterday, a miserable tomorrow is not preordained.

But this hope needs to be realistic one should not be Pollyannaish or resort to some form of magical thinking that is ultimately a form of denial. If we lose our realism, our sense of perspective, engage in denial and magical thinking, then we are setting ourselves up for an immense disappointment. That disappointment can actually hurt us more than whatever the situation was that we were trying to avoid in the first place.

A sense of realism that does not preprogram us for failure, disappointment, and ultimately despair, is necessary.

To believe in hope is to believe in the future and that it is reasonable to expect some aspect of my future to be better than what my present situation is right now. In some cases my belief in the future, my hope, is not that things will improve, but rather, that things will not get worse.

But what happens when things do get worse? What happens when we have a reasonable expectation that something will get worse? How does that affect my belief in the future? This leads one to the topic of endurance. It is legitimate to hope that regardless of how bad a situation might become that we can endure and still be able to celebrate our life and our relationships. Can I be put through the grinder physically and still retain my sense of self and my dignity? Retaining, or discovering, my own dignity is again part of what makes the idea of hope metaphysical.

Since there will always be a future, there is always possibility for renewed life.

There is always the possibility of discovering, recovering, our dignity and self-worth. In so doing, we also enable others to pursue life. In this possibility lies hope and in our hope lies possibility of life.

Sometimes life feels bleak and hopeless but we should not give-up. Acknowledging our own self-worth and significance, combined with the courage to keep living and seeking grace, not only keeps us alive and open to healing, but also helps others engage the divine grace which is Hope.

You have value, never forget.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

[This starts an irregular feature on the topic of PTSD and Hope.  Why “Irregular”? I like to acknowledge that much of my writing is irregular, wordy, and usually requires a pair of clean socks and a light snack to get through. Beyond that, well, I have more ramblings on PTSD and Hope I’d like to inflict on the internet, but am not sure when they will show up. This topic is so wide-ranging that the above essay does not do it justice, yet one must start somewhere.]

Comments

  1. So very well said!
    i do have a question though; How can one tell the difference between feeling hopeless and being hopeless? Or what’s the point that one crosses between being on the brink of despair and completely giving into despair?

    • Hi Victoria, The good news is that if we can formulate that question, then we have not been completely overwhelmed by despair (I am not trying to be a smart-ass when I say that). If we can ask the question, consider outcomes, think of the future possibilities then we are still in the game. There can come a time when one begins to think that there is no difference between should I eat a piece of celery today or should I kill myself, when life has no meaning, the line has been crossed. Having been on both sides of this fence, it is very important to acknowledge that sometimes when the line is crossed only other people who care about us can clearly see it and they then need to intervene. As long as we breathe, we can pull back (and in some cases be pulled back) from absolute despair.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. Steve Schalock says:

    Thanks Dr. Z

    Keep up the irregular ramblings – and keep it irregular.
    Your ramblings and always willingness to help any and all
    are a true reflection of the true light and life.

    “We still have value because we are made in the image and likeness of God.”
    All “The World” screams the opposite.

    We have value, because the one who made all sez so…
    Never stop saying that truth.

    Just ’cause Ize been quiet, doesn’t mean Ize hasn’t been paying attention.
    Keep up the good work, Dr. Z.

    • Hi Steve, Thank you very much! I think I have been reading and teaching Genesis 1 for a bit over twenty years and each day. And, if I am paying attention, being created in the image and likeness of God becomes more clear and life-saving. Thank you for reading and commenting.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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