Cultivating Hope

Eric Aronson founded a highly successful brokerage firm and was enjoying a fast-paced, luxurious lifestyle when it all came to an abrupt halt. At 31 he was convicted of fraud and spent three years in a federal prison. At that point, Aronson felt his future looked very bleak. But while in prison he vowed to turn his life around. There he read more than 600 books to stimulate his mind and energize his will. Upon release, he lost 60 pounds, stopped smoking and quit gambling.

Today, he is an author, speaker, life coach and president of a small corporation devoted to helping others.

Aronson’s example demonstrates the reality that hope – the tendency to focus on the best of possibilities – can be cultivated even in the midst of life’s most challenging conditions. In his book Dash, he recalls how hopeless he felt when he first landed in prison. Aronson wondered how he could survive the ordeal of “being away from everyone and everything I loved.” What he found tremendously helpful in boosting his spirits was regularly saying these words to himself:

Things may not seem to be working out for me right now, but I know that I will make the best of the situation. I know that I will do everything that I can, one day at a time....I will not worry but rather look at what I am going through as a challenge: a time to develop patience and self-confidence and realize that I can change my attitude even if I can’t change my circumstances. I am a survivor! I am going to handle this. I am going to find strength I didn’t know I had.

No matter what happens to us in life, feelings of despair and defeat can be minimized and offset by the power of hope. Tapping into that emotion is a critical life skill because hope has the power to pull us through just about any kind of dark, demanding time. In the extreme, it can mean the difference between life and death.

Hope is a learnable practice. Here are some words that offer insight on the subject:

Surrender. This is the remarkable ability to go with the flow without expecting predetermined outcome. It is a willingness to let events unfold in their time – not our time. Paul McCartney was drifting and feeling despondent in the fall of 1968, a time when the Beatles were close to breaking up. One night he had a most comforting dream. His mother, Mary, who died when he was 14, appeared to him.

“There was her face, completely clear. She said to me, very gently, very reassuringly, ‘Let it be,’” he has said of that experience. Being a musician, McCartney began writing a song based on his dream. The result was some of the most famous lyrics in the history of pop music: When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be…there will be an answer, let it be. McCartney notes that his song has since become almost like a hymn. After the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers, radio stations played it frequently. That prompted McCartney to sing it at a benefit concert in New York City. “Not only did these words help me through a difficult time in my life,” he has said, “but they’ve become a reassuring, healing statement for other people too.”

Vision. When hope is fading, it’s easy to think negatively. Dispute your thoughts during adversity. Work to keep the bleak aspects of your life in perspective. Reject negative assumptions. Seek ways to enlarge your vision of your life and circumstances. Rather than say to yourself, “My world is falling apart,” try saying and thinking, “This is a very difficult time for me, but I will take on the challenge and see it through.” Rather than think, “This is hopeless,” focus on options that can help you shape, manage and downsize the issue. One way of doing this is to ask yourself: “What information do I need to better understand or deal with this?” “What experts can guide me through this difficulty?” “Who among my family and friends can be a trusted, supportive source at this time?” “What steps do I need to take in order to strengthen myself for these challenges?”

By enlarging your vision of the possibilities, you will discover fresh insights and greater options. The vision that emerges is the one that will pull you forward. “A very good vision is needed for life, and the man who has it must follow it – as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky,” said Sioux Chief Crazy Horse.

Persistence. This is the determination to keep moving forward no matter what happens. This quality was fundamental in the career of Jack Welch, the highly regarded former CEO of General Electric. Now retired, Welch was asked by an interviewer: “Have you made any mistakes?” His answer: “I could fill a room with them all! I didn’t make the right deal. I waited too long to move on something. I even blew up a factory early in my career. But I always went to bat. I didn’t wait in the dugout.” Life rewards those who are persistent – those who don’t quit, give up or readily accept defeat.

Humor. No matter how difficult and complex your circumstances may become, work to retain a sense of humor. The ability to identify reasons for smiling and laughing can lighten life’s loads. A deputy sheriff once found some humor in his work. He was assigned to courthouse security and as part of his job he had the duty of explaining the court process to visitors.

One day he was giving a group of ninth graders a tour. The court was in recess and only two people were in the courtroom: the court clerk and a young man in custody wearing handcuffs. “This is where the judge sits,” the deputy said, pointing to the bench. Next, he pointed out where the lawyers, court clerk and court recorder all sit. He also pointed out the witness stand and the jury seating area. “As you can see,” he concluded, “there are a lot of people involved in making this system work.”

At that point the prisoner raised his cuffed hands and said: “Yeah, but I’m the one who makes it all happen.”

Present tense. Live in the present tense, not the past tense nor the future tense. Another way of saying this is: Live in the moment. The Buddha taught that health, happiness and hope emerge when we live in the present moment: “The secret of health for both the mind and the body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, nor to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Learn from the past but don’t limit hope by constantly reliving unhappy yesterdays or fearing the future. One man, tormented by betrayal from a business partner, finally came to the point where he repeatedly reminded himself: “I have to give up all hope for a better yesterday!”

One Step at a Time. Whenever you’re feeling pessimistic or hopeless, remember the number “one.” Tackle events one step at a time. Author Brian Tracy tells of being 21 years old when he and a companion decided to go off and see the world. While most of their friends were hitchhiking through Europe, Tracy and his friend decided they wanted a different experience, so they chose to cross Africa. Their choice meant crossing the enormous Sahara desert. They set off from London, riding bicycles across France and Spain. In Gibraltar they sold their bikes and invested their meager funds in an old Land Rover, using it to cross from Gibraltar to Tangier and into Algeria. Between them and their destination was the mighty expanse of the Sahara desert. They had no idea how difficult and dangerous that journey could be. “As we moved south across the desert, we encountered endless problems, any one of which could have ended our trip and probably our lives,” Tracy recalls. Yet it was during that desert crossing that he learned a vital life lesson.

The French, who had governed Algeria for many years, had marked a path across the desert with black 55-gallon oil drums. The drums were spaced exactly five kilometers apart. As Tracy and his friend drove and came to an oil drum, the next drum – which was five kilometers ahead – would pop up on the horizon, and the last oil drum, which was five kilometers behind, would fall off the horizon. No matter where they were in the desert, they could always see two oil drums at a time: the one left behind and the one they were headed toward. Here was the invaluable lesson Tracy learned: “To cross one of the greatest deserts in the world, all we had to do was take it one barrel at a time. We did not have to cross the entire desert at once.”

That insight is a metaphor for life: Today, all you have to do is take one step, one oil barrel, at a time.

Whether a challenge is personal, financial, business-related or all three...these words and the wisdom they carry can save lives. One must not forget that others have survived seemingly impossible situations in the past. The first step, for all, was a sense of hope. 

Victor Parachin is a freelance writer living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Reach him at