Maintaining hope in Israel during war


Hope is always our best option

Many years ago, when taking my [psychology] licensing exam, I was confronted with a complex question on depression. I suddenly found myself going back to a topic in animal behavior research that had previously caught my attention: the concept of helplessness. I formulated an elaborate answer having to do with helplessness, hopelessness, and depression; a formulation – now surprisingly relevant – which to this day features prominently in my work with clients. Presumably, the person who read my answer agreed with my conception, as I passed the exam.

Fast forward to today. We are a nation that has always embodied hope; and never has the need for this featured more prominently than in these past months as we hope and pray for a good outcome for this devastating war.

As I write this, we have once again expanded our war efforts. As our soldiers go deeper into Rafah, we hold our breath knowing that our enemy does not value life and that its cruelty knows no bounds. Yet, as all of us work to support our loved ones – our soldiers, hostages, the bereaved, the displaced, and our families – we must embrace the hope that we will prevail and achieve safety and a more lasting peace.

My understanding is that when we, as individuals or collectively as a nation, believe a situation to be hopeless and we in turn are left feeling helpless, depression can set in. While for some, depression is chemical, for many others our attitude in large part determines how we experience a situation. This can, without a doubt, have a strong influence on our mood and behavior. I see this daily, and I assume that most of you do as well. Just think of the optimists and pessimists that you know.

People take cover inside a public bomb shelter after a siren is sounded, in October, in Kiryat Shmona, a city now nearly totallly evacuated due to attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon. After October 7, and amid the ongoing military action, we know how much our mental health as been impacted. (credit: AYAL MARGOLIN/FLASH90)

Viktor Frankl explained how people survived their experience in concentration camps based primarily on how they saw their life, and they focused on their future when they got out by finding purpose and creating meaning. As we work together to recover from the trauma we have endured, we have the ability to influence how well we move forward and the outcome of our story by how we choose to view what has happened to us. This war can inspire us to do things we may not otherwise have done.

Historically, as Jews, whether due to faith or inner strength, we have managed to grow and move forward despite hardships or brutal attacks. Instead of ruminating or wallowing in self-pity and sorrow, we find ways to derive meaning from our suffering which has ultimately led to our post-traumatic growth. We do this through action, not passivity. We see most problems as temporary and, as such, don’t focus on our failures (other than to learn from our errors and improve) but instead on finding solutions. This approach seems to have helped us, especially during turbulent times when we have embraced our similarities rather than our differences – and in doing so have worked together, faced our challenges, and nurtured all that we hold so dear. This is resilience at its best, and it is what we must do now.

In acknowledging that life is simply not fair and often well beyond our understanding, some of us deal with this fact better than others. Perhaps it is at this time that faith plays a greater role. I am reminded of how those dealing with loss have looked to those considered “more religious,” who are seen as having access to coping tools that more easily help them to ultimately come to terms with their pain. Perhaps this is partly due to their ability to sit with such uncertainty and “have faith” that all will turn out okay in the end.

How can this be applied to our own lives?

Therefore, now more than ever, it is important to have hope, even though this can be difficult.

It is easy to feel that things happen to us and that, as a result, we cannot do anything to change a situation. We feel “done to” and forget that there is always something we can do, no matter how small, that will make a difference.

FOR EXAMPLE, I felt terribly depressed when, many years ago, I was told that my mother had 48 hours left to live; my father-in-law had a failed cardiac procedure and was in the ICU in another country; and my son was diagnosed with pneumonia – all during a blizzard which closed the highways and sky. At the time, it felt traumatic and I was definitely overwhelmed. For a short period of time, I felt almost immobile. My need to do something ultimately kicked in. Not looking back and asking why this all happened but looking forward and asking what I could do about it made a huge difference at the time. I could not change the facts, but I could do something about them. I vowed to give my mother the best two days I could, sent my husband for a visit to his parents, and made sure my son took his antibiotics.

So, while the facts didn’t change, my attitude did; I felt less helpless and more empowered, hopeful, and optimistic. I had a plan that didn’t alter what was happening but did change how I felt. While I could be accused of wearing rose-tinted glasses by the pessimists I know and love, I was happier with a plan that helped propel me forward and gave me purpose.

Prior to drawing up a plan for sustaining hope and building optimism today, it’s important to take a step back and examine the factors that influence your individual approach to a situation.

HOW WELL can you calm yourself in order to sit with the issues and work them through? Can you breathe in such a way that your pre-frontal cortex or logical brain can be of help? If not, you will be in flight, fright, or freeze mode and won’t be much help to yourself or anyone else. Exercises that take about 10 minutes to learn can help you enormously with anxiety, sleep, pain, and more.

When you are calm, it’s easier to be more attentive to what is happening around you and envisage other possibilities.

What are you noticing? How are you feeling, physically? What are your thoughts and concerns? How can you appreciate whatever you see, feel, or experience?

Can you allow hopefulness and positivity to exist side by side with the uncertainty that everyone feels?

Can you recognize and come to understand that you can only control what is within your power, and yet, in spite of everything, there is much you can feel in control of? This is enormous and can give you a greater sense of hope and optimism.

With respect to my personal example, while I could not do much after the doctor said my mom had only 48 hours to live, I could make them the best she could have. In fact, I got to have eight more weeks with my mother and learned that no one can play God and predict exactly how much time you have or what the exact outcome of a situation might be.

We don’t have control over the “package” we are given in life, but we certainly do have control over what we do with it. Remember that how you think about your problem will influence you to feel full of hope or sadness. I would rather choose hope. We have so much to be proud of and be grateful for, and now is the time to focus on this.

Please seek professional help if you are having problems coping during these very difficult days.

Help is, literally, a phone call away.  

The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana and author of Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships – Resolving Conflicts. She has written about psychology in The Jerusalem Post since 2000 and specializes in trauma, grief, and bereavement.,

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