Coping with feelings of hopelessness

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, they say. But sometimes the lemons life throws at you are rotten. What do you do then?

Woman sitting on a window sill with feelings of hopelessness
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, goes an old proverb. Lemons here symbolise a challenging situation whereas lemonade stands for something positive or desirable. In other words, according to the proverb, when faced with a challenge, one should not lose hope but instead make the best of the situation.

But I have observed that sometimes life gives you rotten lemons so that all you can do is discard them. What do you do then?

All my life, I have been told by well meaning others that when things go wrong, the one thing that I should not let go of is hope; cling to it for dear life, because letting go of hope means giving up.

But no one ever told me that sometimes there’s no scope of doing that. Yet there are times when life corners you in such a way that you have no room for escape.

I have come to realise that these times, when absolutely nothing is going right in your life and the world seems like a hostile place, when there’s simply no way out and you’re filled with feelings of hopelessness, that’s when the greatest opportunity for growth arises.

The paradox of hopelessness

The exquisite paradox of life is that when I have nothing left, when I surrender and become open to total annihilation, that’s when, for the first time, I begin to live freely. Only when I lose everything, do I gain life. The irony is that once I accept total destruction, I stare at infinite possibilities. Then, suddenly, a different kind of peace descends and it dawns on me that only in total insecurity lies the opportunity to discover such peace.

This happens because, when there’s nothing more to lose, when nothing more is left in me to be destroyed, or taken away, I can relax—now there’s nothing to protect. No hopes to keep my attention fixed on some possibility in the future. When there’s nothing to look forward to, my attention comes back to where it belongs—on the present moment—and I begin to live and experience life as it is rather than trying to mould it according to my personal hopes and desires.

Also read » Why is mindfulness so hard after all?

The wisdom of no escape

Pema Chödrön, Buddhist teacher and best-selling author of The Wisdom of No Escape explains, “When we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experiences become very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.”

When there’s no escape possible, when not even a ray of hope can be seen, then—and only then—can I accept darkness, and even befriend it. When I accept darkness, I begin to develop the ability to see in the dark. What’s more, all my other dormant senses come alive too.

But hope and acceptance don’t go together. Hope is a crutch. Only when I’m totally free of hope, when the ground beneath me disappears, can I learn to fly. That’s why I say, there is value in your feelings of hopelessness.


This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri considers himself a student and teacher of the wisdom of love. He is also a writer-editor and has written on topics ranging from strategic marketing and business management to art, culture and even philosophy. His more than 1200 published stories—articles, interviews, full-length features—have appeared in some of the leading newspapers and magazines of India. A certified cognitive behavioural therapist, he works as a personal counsellor too. He is the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed book based on powerful ideas of some of the greatest thought leaders. Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".

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