From the May 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

May 1, 2003

Hope, Sweet Hope

Spring has sprung, but it seems that black cloud o

With its profusion of new growth, warmth, and color, spring tends to lighten people's spirits and foster a sense of optimism about the future. But for many of us, prolonged danger and uncertainty make it hard to hang onto hope. And if someone has suffered a recent loss or trauma, their despair and loneliness can actually deepen amid all this evidence of the glory of creation.

If you or any of your clients have ever been tempted to give up hope, here are some ways to regain a more balanced outlook.

To raise flagging spirits and morale, I gave everyone in my small planning firm a raise several months ago. As far as I can tell, it hasn't helped a bit. What else can I do to help promote a sense of togetherness and positive thinking while we wait for good economic times to return? Financial rewards are an important sign of appreciation and confidence, but it usually takes more than that to improve morale and build esprit de corps at a time of organizational stress.

Have you considered taking steps to encourage better personal connections? For example, you might sponsor a company softball team or host a picnic for your employees and their families. Another option would be to hold regular staff lunches or dinners where people can schmooze about themselves and about the world at large, while learning more about each other. I'm also a proponent of regular staff retreats with an outside facilitator. They can be excellent opportunities to "breathe air into the system" by helping workers identify unmet needs and wants, correct unbalanced interpersonal dynamics, and share personal information that may help everyone feel more connected. You might even institute a sabbatical policy, allowing workers to recharge themselves for three months to a year.

Any of these ideas will help your employees feel more appreciated, acknowledged, and connected. You don't have to use all of them; one or two may be all it takes to make a big difference.

Several months ago a client of mine buried her 18-year-old son, who was murdered during a robbery. She was in the midst of estate planning then, and of course everything came to a halt. It's more important than ever that she make financial provisions for her two surviving children, but every time I talk with her she seems so dispirited that I can't bear to bring up the subject. What should I do? A wonderful article about hope written by Yvonne Dolan, a trauma therapist, in Psychotherapy Networker provides a wise perspective that may help answer your question.

It's absolutely fine to allow your client to talk about her loss and pain, if she needs and wants to. But I wouldn't invite this, because focusing excessively on grief can sometimes lead people to seclude themselves at home for days or weeks, crying and unable to function.

Instead, I would try to make her more aware of her coping strategies. Ask her, "What helps you get through the day?" According to Dolan, one woman found that making a list of each day's chores and activities helped her keep on keeping on. You might suggest to your client that a daily routine is often a comfort in times of loss. Whether it's going to a job or volunteer activity, walking at lunchtime every day, or taking a class at the health club, regular habits can help provide needed structure in a life that feels shattered.

Also, try to find out what healing resources she has to draw on. If you think it's appropriate, you might gently suggest that she seek a grief group, get together with friends, or reach out to her spiritual community, temple, or church.

Don't attempt to broach financial topics unless you get clear signs that she is ready and able to focus on them. Until then, keep checking in with her periodically to see if the time is right to move ahead with her estate planning agenda. Remember, mourning takes a long time. A year or more is not unusual, especially when someone has suffered a loss as unexpected and traumatic as your client has. Only when she begins to reembrace the small pleasures of living will she be able to find her way back to hope.

One of my clients is so pessimistic about the stock market's long-term prospects that he wants me to liquidate all the growth funds in his IRA and buy government bonds. Since he's only in his 40s, I feel this would be a shortsighted move. How can I restore his confidence in the future? You can't sell him on a more upbeat view of the stock market until he's ready to hear it. So be sure to acknowledge his feelings of disappointment and distress about his shrunken IRA, and remind him of advice you gave him that kept him from losing as much as many others did. (I hope this is the case.) Once he feels that you fully understand his loss, you can try to restore his sense of perspective by showing how this bear market compares to earlier ones, and how patient investors eventually benefited from market rallies.

I would also explore the areas of his life that do make him feel hopeful. If he says that nothing has lifted his spirits since 9/11, or since the Republicans won Congress, or since his wife divorced him, empathize with his despair about these events that have little to do with the stock market's long-term outlook. Then press him gently to identify things that give him even small amounts of pleasure and appreciation for life.

Next, brainstorm with him about expanding these little pleasures, which sooner or later will shore up his optimism and hope. For example, if he mentions the good work of a local animal rescue organization, the relaxation of biking in the country, the joy of playing with his grandkids, or the satisfaction of completing a woodworking project, these are all things he could make more space for in his life. If you can help him contemplate a future with more life-giving activities in it, he may eventually feel hopeful enough to consider moving his investments toward a middle ground that satisfies you both.

A new client I've just met was counting on her widowed father to pay for her graduate school expenses. But after recently remarrying and becoming a stepfather, he told her that he can't afford to foot the bill. She's crushed. What can I do to help her recover and move on? Young people like your client can find disappointments of this kind utterly heart-breaking, leading them to despair about their future. So patiently listen to how hurt and shocked she is. You might comfort her with the thought that once he settles into his new marriage, her father may have more to give her, perhaps not in money (she certainly shouldn't count on that), but in time and attention.

To help her reconnect with hope, take some time to ask her about her grad school and professional dreams. Then suggest other avenues of financial aid. Without demeaning her expectations of her father's help, you might point out that even with the most loving and supportive parents, many graduate students earn their advanced degree without their family's financial assistance. Eventually she may recognize that taking on this challenge will help her develop her own financial muscles, and ultimately make her more independent and empowered.

Of course, the hardest part of this for her will be coping with her father's abrupt withdrawal of support. But if you encourage her to accept your faith (and probably her father's, too) in her ability to finish her education on her own, it may help her move from disappointment to a more hopeful and proactive pursuit of her dreams.

Lately, I've been feeling that nothing I do for my clients will make any difference in the long run. It's not just the economy, although that's part of it. What really depresses me is realizing that here in the enlightened 21st century, we're still struggling with the same old violence and bloodshed of caveman days. Everything looks hopeless. Is there a way to work myself out of this mindset? Getting out of the doldrums often means training your mind and heart to focus on small pleasures in the present, instead of dwelling on the past or the unknown future. In a way, all we have is the present. Inhabiting it fully, with your full positive energy, is a gift to yourself and to others around you.

I've had to learn this lesson myself. For a long time, I never could feel truly happy without undermining it with guilt about all the suffering in the world. As a child, I remember coming in from playing outside to hear my mother say, "How can you be so happy when children in Europe are starving?"

After taking stock of this negative script, I've been able to reprogram myself to realize that experiencing moments of joy, humor, love, and lightness helps me contribute in a small way to the eventual peace and well-being of the planet. My own attitudes, behavior, and capacity for connection are something I do have control over.

In your case, I think that another step in changing your outlook is to take an inventory of your past responses to stress and fear. That is, ask yourself how you have coped successfully with despair or depression at other challenging times of your life. What helped you heal? Was it writing down your feelings or discussing them with others, playing golf or music, doing yoga or meditation, being with your loved ones? Whatever worked, make it a top priority--now.

Be prepared to work at this. Attitudes, like aircraft carriers, take longer than you may think to turn around. When you act as if the future is brighter than it now appears, you may eventually see true hope on the horizon.

In general, rekindling hope is a process of focusing more fully on the present moment, and strengthening connections with sources of peace, pleasure, and healing in our lives. It may also mean empathetic listening to troubled clients and friends, and asking for help and support when we need it ourselves. In this way, I believe we will be doing our best to remind our bodies and minds of the joy of renewal, and thus helping the world around us to benefit from the sweet blessings of hope.

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