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The Psychology of Hope – Hope Amid Crisis


In our homeland and throughout the world, the Jewish nation is in grave distress. We are under attack, and we are at war. Throughout this long exile, we have suffered through the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust . . . and now, we are targeted and threatened in every corner. Can we remain hopeful? Does hope help us cope with terror and tragedy? Are there any psychological tools that can enable us to transition from a sense of helplessness and hopelessness to optimism and hope?

Let’s understand hope by studying a bit of brain science. Human beings have elaborate brains, in which thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and behavioral activity operate concurrently. During moments of intense pain or fear, the consciousness is engulfed in anguish, despair and anxiety, and the overwhelmed brain can descend into a helpless, hopeless state. The constant barrage of horrible news, atrocious images and existential threats we are currently experiencing has resulted in a feeling of hopelessness for many people. Our brains are in a state of shock and cannot think or feel much else. 

How do we get past hopelessness? Consider what we generally do when we are frightened or in despair. We might daven that our suffering stop. We might exercise our bitachon, reminding ourselves that Hashem is the true source of salvation. Praying for a positive outcome and having faith that it will materialize are religious practices. But these actions are not hope. So what is hope and what does it accomplish in a person who is overwhelmed with distress? Is hope nothing more than denial gift-wrapped? Is it merely a deferral of despair? Is it donning a Pollyanna-like optimism to avoid crashing in pessimistic resignation to the horrid reality? 

Psychologically healthy individuals are able to be hopeful, but not because they deny or suppress their feelings of anxiety or stress. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: achieving hope is a process that begins with self-awareness—i.e., recognizing the anxiety and the stress. Research shows that when you are feeling a sense of hopelessness, you must look it in the eye, acknowledge your distress, and identify the ways in which that distress is affecting you.  

How do you come to this self-awareness? Breathe slowly and deeply. Ground yourself, which means taking a few moments to find a quiet, comfortable posture that feels calming and familiar. Then observe the thoughts and ideas associated with your distress, the emotions that are present, and even your bodily sensations, such as your breathing, tension, pain or weakness. Pay attention to how you feel as you focus inward, e.g., restless, agitated, numb. Observing and identifying your range of thoughts and emotions, your physical state, and your overall behavior allows for mindfulness and fuller consciousness of yourself and your experience. This leads to something very important: the ability to define and thereby limit your negative feelings. 

You might have noticed a pain chart hanging in a doctor’s office or hospital, which consists of a series of cartoon faces with varying expressions depicting pain ranging from mild discomfort to unbearable. Doctors will often ask patients to refer to the chart to describe the level of pain they are experiencing. The purpose of the chart is to help the doctor understand how much pain you are experiencing, but it is also a way for you to rate your own discomfort. Once you define your level of pain, your mind has externalized the pain, making it an objective experience, rather than only a subjective one. The pain is this much, but not that much; for example, it is moderate, which means it is not severe. Setting a parameter for your distress, as well as naming the experience within, helps mitigate the uncomfortable sensations. You know what it is and what it is not. 

The externalization of pain can take place on an emotional level as well. Self-awareness is like the Heisenberg Effect in physics applied to psychology. The Heisenberg Effect states that in scientific research, the very act of measurement or observation directly alters the phenomenon under investigation. Similarly, in psychology: once I am mindful of what takes place within, I succeed in limiting those emotions, thoughts and sensations precisely because I have defined them. For example, you might feel a poorly defined sense of uneasiness, but once you are aware of its specific cognitive, emotional and physical components, you begin to feel in charge and have better control of that uneasiness. Simply put, the state of distress becomes more manageable when you have identified and defined it for yourself. So hope begins, phenomenologically, with self-awareness because you then know what your hopelessness consists of. 

Attaining clarity about your emotional state actually frees up space within your brain to begin connecting with other internal mind-states. Feelings, sensations and thoughts other than hopelessness, worry and distress are then able to rise to the surface. As the calmer brain surveys its broader range of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, it allows you to reflect back on better times and positive experiences. Positive, feel-good thoughts and emotions are reactivated, propelling you to move beyond hopelessness and to face the future with optimism and resilience. 

Once you define your level of pain, your mind has externalized the pain, making it an objective experience, rather than only a subjective one.

To illustrate: A person worries deeply over the escalation of antisemitism that is beyond his power to stop or control. He takes the time to face the worry and peer into its psychological components. His self-aware mind can then begin reflecting on thoughts of safe places, secure feelings, encouragement, warmth and tranquility. The mind can tolerate the coexistence of contrasting feelings. Think of how the glass that is shattered zecher lechurban coexists with the joy of the wedding. Despite the presence of worry, once reflections of positive past experiences enter one’s consciousness, the dominant state of mind is no longer anguished hopelessness. The existence of positive sensations allows one to taste a trace, a flavor, of what better times will feel like, restoring a sense of hope. 

This is the psycho-neural process of generating hope. There is, however, an even deeper quality to hope, a spiritual aspect. Prior to his death, Yaakov Avinu speaks to his sons, and in his blessing to Dan, he declares, “Lishuascha kivisi Hashem—how I hope, G-d, for Your deliverance” (Bereishis 49:18). Those three words are echoed in our prayers. Daily we proclaim, “ki lishuascha kivinu kol hayom.” And in other places in Tanach as well, we speak of kivui, hopefulness. In fact, the Midrash teaches that “hakol bekivui,” all important things begin with our being hopeful for them. Getting past suffering, says the Midrash, begins with ascending into hope. 

Hope is one of the kochos hanefesh, the sacred energies emanating from the Jewish soul, which augment our psychological coping. Spiritual hope is transcendent. It is unfettered by the severity of the present, because it draws one toward envisioning a better future. Dovid Hamelech captures this (Tehillim 126:1) when he declares “hayinu kecholmim—we will have been like dreamers,” portraying his vision of geulah, of emerging from despair. During the oppressive exile, we look ahead to a return of better times. This anticipation keeps our spirits lifted and our minds grounded and optimistic. Notice that the phrase refers to those future times, yet it is written in the past tense. We will be like dreamers; we were like dreamers. Spiritual hope is the capacity to create a feeling in the present based on how you will feel in the future. It is a confidence that awaits better times to come, stemming from the awareness and certainty that you have felt good in the past. The spiritual hope-mechanism, kivui, is more than a mind game or a reframing of the present. It is a time-transcending experience where past, present and future are fused into a spirit of numinosity, of sublime emotional and sensory serenity in the here and now. The neuroscience and psychology of hope take you into the depths of your despair, and back to memories of better times, propelling you into feeling that the future, too, will be better. The spirituality of hope, the power of kivui, on the other hand, evokes a transcendent belief and confidence that even during the dark present, you are safe and secure. 

I have read anecdotes of Jews during the Holocaust who, as a means of easing the hunger they were experiencing, would focus on the Shabbos foods they had once savored, with visual and sensory images of future Shabbos meals. That was a means of employing hope, and it did help sustain them. They were not simply looking forward to the physical act of eating and satisfying their hunger. They were remembering the sanctity and allure of a profound spiritual experience, the Shabbos, and projecting it forward; their memories of a happier past were actualized and that positive future was experienced as the present. 

Hope is the anticipation of better times to come, just as we’ve had better times in the past. Hope is our psychospiritual catalyst to coping in the present. Every Jew can activate hope and kivui that we shall emerge from this harrowing time. 

We keep the faith. We pray. We keep the spirit. We hope.


Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist, graduate school professor, author and director of Chai Lifeline Crisis and Trauma Services. He is rav of the Hashkama Minyan of Young Israel Hancock Park, Los Angeles and serves as a dayan on the batei din of Jerusalem and other communities. Among his rabbinic scholarly works are the Conversion Readiness Assessment, the Mikvah Checklist for Managing OCD, and teshuvos on the four chalakim of the Shulchan Aruch, including publications in Otzar HaPoskim. He is frequently consulted by rabbinic leaders and organizations on mental health halachah.


More in this Section

The Tenacity of Our Nation by Michal Horowitz

Bitachon During Crisis by Rebbetzin Dina Schoonmaker as told to Barbara Bensoussan

How to Build Hope by Rabbi Larry Rothwachs

Not for Naught by Rabbi Dov Foxbrunner

Responding to Crisis: A Historical Approach by Dr. Henry Abramson

Celebrating Life in the Face of Pain: One Son Married, One Son Missing by Toby Klein Greenwald

Of Faith and Fortitude: How Devorah Paley Energized a Nation by Yocheved Lavon

A Laughing Matter by Carol Green Unger

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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