by Irene Glasse
When I was a teenager in the mid 90’s, I spent my summers working as a counselor at a YMCA day camp. It was a fun job and the location was beautiful – a campground in the forest with a swimming pool, flowing stream, open fields for sports…pretty much anything a kid (or a teenager like me) could want. We had a lot of fun and most kids loved camp so much that they cried when their session ended. There are a few children I remember clearly even after so many years. I definitely still remember Jeff*.
Jeff was in my group – Group 5 – which meant that I had a lot of interaction with him. No matter what we were doing, Jeff was unhappy. He seemed miserable at camp. When we were going for a stream hike, he was upset about the possibility of tripping and falling, or of his clothes getting wet. When we were headed for the sports field, he was worried about not being able to play the sport of the day well. When it was time for free swim, he was unhappy because he was tired and didn’t want to play anymore. He didn’t even get excited about Ice Cream day. No matter how much I tried to reframe and redirect, Jeff found a way for whatever was going on to be a source of dismay. None of the other counselors knew what to do, so we managed however we could.
Family Night occurred toward the end of each summer session. There was a big cook-out and overnight camping adventure that family members were invited to. At Jeff’s session, his father attended, and suddenly everything made sense: Jeff’s dad had the same energy as Jeff – he walked with his shoulders rounded, mumbled under his breath about bugs and dirt, and turned every conversation into a litany of complaints and dire predictions for the future. He had the same heaviness to him – a deep sadness that made him difficult to reach.
In the 90s, we didn’t have the same understanding of mental and emotional health that we do now. Those fields were only beginning to blossom and hadn’t really made it out into the suburbs of Western Maryland. I like to think that today, Jeff and his family would be a little healthier. However, although their behavior might have been rooted in very real emotional regulation issues, one thing that meeting Jeff’s dad illustrated for me was how much of our behavior is learned.
To be hopeful is to have a form of emotional resilience. A hopeful person believes that although challenges, grief, and adversity occur in every life, somehow things will work out. They believe that they have the ability to figure out a path forward or respond in a way that makes adversity just another part of the story. And, emotional resilience is a learned behavior. It is a practice as much as an attitude.
For so many of us, staying hopeful can be challenging. We’ve had quite a few rough years in a row and the fissures in society seem to be deeper and more jagged than ever. I know I’m not the only one who has fantasized about just throwing in the towel and becoming a hermit. It’s easy to feel hopeless when it seems like the world keeps stacking obstacles against us.
Approaching hope as a practice is a good way to cultivate resilience, especially for those of us who did not learn hopefulness from our families. Pagans have some advantages when it comes to growing hope. More resources are available to us and we tend to have experience with intentionally changing thought patterns. As with many areas of life, hope can be cultivated through both mundane and magical techniques. I’ll give you the conventional information first, then the mystical.
Understand what hope is and what it is not
Feeling hopeful doesn’t mean starry–eyed naivete about the world, or using “love and light” as a way to spiritually bypass our own behaviors and patterns that we need to work on. Remember that hopefulness is simply the realistic expectation that something good will happen, and that we have some influence over it. It’s not an “everything’s going to be perfect and amazing” attitude. Hope is aspirational while being grounded in reality. Interestingly, it’s also a feedback cycle. When we successfully manage a challenge, it increases our optimism that we will do so again in the future. One of my favorite quotes is “You have a 100% success rate of surviving every bad day so far.”
Acknowledging that hopefulness is difficult right now is a great first step. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about feeling hopeless while also trying to cultivate hope. Start with where you are: if hope is challenging, that’s totally okay. Allow it to be difficult and grant yourself some grace.
Observe and alter your thought patterns
This is one of those areas where Pagans often have an advantage. Reframing thoughts is a powerful way to work with the brain’s ability to learn new patterns and behaviors. This flexibility is known as neuroplasticity. Reframing is also part of approaching hope as a practice – it’s something we repeat so we can get better at it. When we’re struggling with low levels of hope, reframing a thought to be happy is frequently unhelpful. However, reframing a thought to be neutral can have good effects. For example, “Everything is ruined now” becomes “I’m trying as hard as I can, and giving myself some patience.” Reframing can also apply to larger areas of thought. If your dreams for the future have been thrown off by life’s slings and arrows, consciously sitting and evaluating how to build a future you still desire is helpful. Maybe your plan happens in six years rather than five, or includes different people, or changes the location you expected.
Begin with observing and reframing your thoughts when you notice them. The practice of slipping into the Observer mode many of us learn in meditation practice is useful here. Don’t worry about catching and correcting every thought – start with just a few (maybe the most repetitive or intrusive ones) and grow from there.
Focus on what you can influence
As in spellwork, the person we always have the most influence over is ourselves. By tending to the aspects of our lives that we have the most control over, we help create the right circumstances for hope to flourish. Think of it as amending the soil a garden grows in.
Keep up with your self-care and creative outlets. It’s tempting to surrender to the gravitational pull of the couch and endless dopamine hunting via social media, but continuing (or starting) a self-care regimen is one of the best ways to cultivate hope and resilience. Small activities that inspire pleasure or joy are the building blocks of hope. Self-care looks different for everyone, so remember to try different techniques if this is a new practice for you. Our self-care gives us smaller moments to look forward to as well as times of pleasure and satisfaction. The combined effect is strongly supportive of a resilient mindset.
Get involved with group efforts and activities. The minister of the congregation I serve, Rev. Carl Gregg, has a wonderful saying: “If you feel like you’re just one person alone, stop being one person alone.” Group activities can be in person gatherings like Rites of Spring, A Feast of Lights, and Twilight Covening, but can also be virtual gatherings (Zoom has been such a blessing over these last few years) like Sunflower Mornings and Evenings, or taking part in a group effort on your own time. Activities with social and spiritual focuses are wonderful. If you’re having a hard time processing some of the political or environmental challenges facing us, getting involved in a group focusing on creating change on those fronts can also be helpful. Doing something, even a small thing, about a big problem can help us feel more optimistic. It also puts us in contact with other people who are trying to make the world a better place.
One of my favorite resources for getting started with political work is 5Calls.org. This website offers various political efforts to support, shows you who to contact, and gives you a script for calling and leaving a message/sending an email for your state legislators. Getting involved in local social, racial, and environmental justice organizations is a wonderful way to make an impact as well as connect with others of like mind. Acts of compassion and care help foster a sense of control over the world around us as well as have a positive effect on the lives of others.
Lastly, monitor your media intake. If you’re a bit of a news junkie like me, have specific windows of time for checking the news, and then shut off that media feed. We can only absorb so much information before we hit overload. Give yourself plenty of wind-down time after your last news bulletin of the day to recover and reset before bed. Monitoring media includes our entertainment as well. Stay aware of the emotional tone of your entertainment media and choose options that support the emotional state you’d prefer to cultivate.
And now for the magic…
Pagan practices offer us additional tools when it comes to cultivating hope and resilience. Through connecting with different energies and Beings, we can shift the flow of energy in our lives.
The primal Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water each include both generative and destructive qualities. By focusing on the uplifting or generative aspect of the different Elements, we can increase the presence of that quality in our lives. For example:
Earth stabilizes. It is the deep roots of the mountain, unchanging in the face of human turmoil. Earth holds and grounds us. Earth is the power of stability and strength.
Air brightens. It is the fresh breeze at dawn, the currents that blow the mist and darkness away. Air is the power of new ideas and effortless communication.
Fire transforms. It is the light and warmth that tempers the cold darkness of winter. Fire devours what no longer serves and illuminates the shadows. Fire is the power of passion and vitality.
Water purifies. It is the flowing waves that wash away the debris. Water nourishes, heals, cleans, and clears. Water is the power of connection and clarity.
To begin cultivating a stronger connection with one of the Elements, create space for it within your home and life. Shift your altar over to that Element’s colors and symbols. Find time to connect with the Element in natural environments. Add associated colors, stones, scents, and symbols to your clothing. Consciously connect to the Element you have chosen when you’re having a tough day, or struggling with hopelessness.
Our ancestors experienced many challenges in their lives – plagues, famines, natural disasters, violent political turmoil, and more. They lived long enough to make our own presence on the planet possible and left us a legacy of survival. Developing a stronger connection with our ancestors can support our own resilience. Our ancestors have a very real stake in our lives. We are their legacy, their lives and loves still active in this world in a new form.
Learn about your ancestors. If you do not have specific names, learn about the culture you are descended from. Every culture of the world has faced incredible challenges and being able to remind yourself how far your line has come can be wonderful. Consider adding a candle or small altar for your ancestors to your devotional practices. Allow their strength to become your strength.
Many of the Pantheons we encounter in polytheistic devotional practice include hopeful figures. So many core myths are about overcoming adversity or remaining strong in the face of overwhelming odds. If you work with the Gods, consider learning more about and making more offerings to the hopeful members of your pantheon. Like attracts like, and even just immersing ourselves in the energy of a deity who inspires hope can be beneficial.
Humans are incredibly complex beings. Within each of us exist a multitude of faces and facets. As a result, we shift between identities. We are our parent self, our child self, our ritualist self, our goofy good-natured self, our hard worker self, our trying-not-to-freak-out-the-mundanes self, and more. My own students work with an archetype of the self known as the Empowered Witch Self. Along with all those many selves, there’s a hopeful self in the mix.
Take a moment to contemplate your hopeful self. Imagine them. What are they doing or saying? How do they present themselves? How do they feel? Allow that self to become as real as possible in your visualization. Then, if today is a challenging day, take a few deep breaths and draw your hopeful self into your body. Feel their energy spreading out and through you. Experiment with holding the connection for a little while. When we guise or step into a particular facet of self, that guise eventually slips. Unfortunately, we cannot be only our hopeful self forever onward. However, this archetype can be revisited regularly and tapped into when needed. If you noticed your hopeful self wearing clothing or jewelry you do not normally wear, you could experiment with wearing those items and evaluating their impact. Our meditations, journeywork, and visualizations offer us information in many different ways.
Many of us are first in line to light a candle for a friend in need but reticent to do so on our own behalf. Not all Pagans do magic, but if you do, remember that self-enchantment is available to you. Spells to increase hopefulness and resiliency can be as simple as candle magic or as elaborate as a full monthly working. Consider what works best for your path, practice, time, and energy. Remember, the closest and best target for a spell is always the self.
I wish you hope, renewal, and resiliency. May the path forward be a blessing.
*name changed to protect privacy