“Resilient” is what they call those of us who have overcome tremendous obstacles in order to thrive. Psychologists study the conditions of highly adaptive people who seem to defy the odds against them and conclude that those who are resilient have positive community connections, realistic expectations, goals, relentless optimism, and they practice self-care. Those work for me, but they wouldn’t make the mark without what I think of as a critical component in my own resilience: hope.
We are all made up of pieces of our cultural past, individual past, and collective past. Culturally, I descend from a family of service workers, religious leaders, military personnel and former American slaves. Individually, my achievements include overcoming poverty and homelessness, surviving childhood abuse, and being a first-generation college graduate. Collectively, I live in the richest nation on earth, and we’ve gained wealth and power by capitalizing on the demise of those who are marginalized or at a social disadvantage.
My ability to thrive in spite of the negative aspects of my cultural, individual and collective past is because of the hope I have in God. Because of God, the sun rises, and sets, and rises again. Therefore, I am convinced that our current position in life is not the final destination for our lives. God will see us through every situation, and hope in God helps us to endure every circumstance, so that we are not bound by negative conditions.
You might be thinking that this is easy to say but difficult to do. If only hope in God were like swallowing a magic pill or clicking our heels together like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” (or “The Wiz,” if you’re like me and prefer the statuesque 1970’s Diana Ross to Judy Garland). Having hope isn’t simply fixing one’s mind to think of more desirable things, hope must be cultivated and conditioned.
The summer before my 10th birthday, I was placed in my grandmother’s care, and I was broken, battered, and bereft of hope. For the 3 years before that point, my younger siblings and I were “on the run” with my mentally ill mother who was running because she fled the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of my father. We lived in cars, with family and friends who were not going to tell my father where we were, and sometimes we had apartments or rooms of our own.
During this time, my mother worked several part-time restaurant jobs, and she also earned money in creative, non-legal ways. None of us knew anything about mental illness, and we had no time to analyze the impact of trauma. We just knew we needed to survive. We kept our belongings in black trash bags so that we could always be ready to move, and many nights we ate out of dumpsters, got food from shelters, or stole food from stores. As a child living on the run, I made many mistakes. I didn’t know how to be hungry without complaining. I didn’t know how to steal discreetly. I was unaware of the fact that school officials would become suspicious of my home life if I told my teacher that we slept in our car sometimes.
My mother began to resent me because I bore a striking resemblance to my father. Her resentment came in the form of beatings and taunts. Oftentimes she would leave me unconscious, or purposely degrade me after beatings, for being too much like him. One time, she took a metal comb and heated it by placing it in the fire on the kitchen stove. She had used the comb to straighten our hair. On this particular day, she hit me repeatedly in the head and in the face with the hot comb because she was convinced that I was conspiring with my father to ruin her life.
My mother began seeing a man and gave birth to a third child, and this man was in many ways, more abusive to my mother than my father had been. And unlike my father—who never abused us kids, my mother’s new boyfriend was physically and sexually abusive to us all. I missed a lot of school, and after years of being abused by my mother and her boyfriend, my mother called my grandmother and told her to pick me up. Later she told me it was because she knew she’d eventually kill me if I stayed with her.
On the night my grandmother picked me up from the apartment where I lived with my mother, her boyfriend, and my two siblings, my mother packed up and left town without telling anyone where they were going. I was thin, my body was covered in bruises, I was wearing only a t-shirt. A black trash bag held my clothes and backpack.
My grandmother took me to the hospital for a full physical examination, and I was placed into an outpatient psychological therapy program for children. I had nightmares and panic attacks daily. I was suicidal and I was afraid of everything and everyone around me. Additionally, because I had missed so much school, I could barely read or write.
There was no magic, hope-filled remedy to all this. But there were small, concrete practices that, in time, added up to hope.
My grandmother gave me a dictionary, writing material, and assignments to help me learn to read and write. She also gave me a Bible. My grandmother was very religious, and she told me that the Bible would help me form new, positive thoughts to replace the negative thoughts that devastated my mind. I’d read passages from the Bible and the dictionary, write them down, read them aloud, and try to memorize them. The stories of the Bible carried me away into the journeys of people who lived long ago, and reading about how they navigated through their experiences by having faith in God made me realize that if I too had faith in God, that I could overcome the pain I was feeling.
I read the Bible each time I felt a panic attack come, or each time I got scared. When I woke up in the middle of the night fighting off the screaming in my mind, I’d soothe myself by saying the prayers and songs written in the Psalms. The ancient words written about a God who, in the end, makes everything okay, conditioned my mind to seek God in every experience of pain, lack or uncertainty I experienced. Over time, the nightmares stopped, the anxiety lessened, and I’ve accumulated a wealth of passages and stories I turn to for cultivating hope.
When struggling to find meaning and purpose, I cultivate hope by turning to Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
When I am experiencing doubt and uncertainty, I cultivate hope by repeating the words of Psalm 91:2: “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.’” And I remember to lean into the safety of God and to trust that there’s no safer place to be.
When I’m working to release anxiety, I cultivate hope by remembering the advice of Philippians 4:6-7: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
When there’s a temptation to be devastated and overwhelmed, Deuteronomy 31:6 helps me to cultivate hope: “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”
When hopelessness lurks, I think on Paul’s words in Romans 15:13, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” And hope, for me, begins to return.
When a better future seems too far away, I draw hope from the prophet Jeremiah: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11).
Reading or reciting scripture passages solidifies hope in God and assures me that whatever circumstances may befall me, that trouble doesn’t last always. If God was present for the characters in our favorite Bible stories, surely God can be present for us today.
When the words of scripture don’t readily flood the mind, or when a negative situation seems to exhaust even my strongest sensibilities, I think of our ancestors. When I consider all the challenging circumstances God has brought humanity through—from bondage in Egypt and slavery in America to the Great Depression and World War Il and beyond—I pray that we have enough hope to begin again. The same God who walked with those who came before us is the same God who walks with us now. This is the God whose presence I found in words of scripture as a child learning to turn faith into an enduring resilience—a resilience that would be incomplete without hope.