Hope, Hopelessness and Healing

Posted by Dr. Dan Gottlieb in Life After Paralysis on July 31, 2017 # Health

Recent research coming out of the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco demonstrated that the creation of a certain motor neuron implanted in mice enabled paralyzed mice to move their legs again.

And then there was the article in the New Yorker several years ago about scientists in Poland who removed cells from a quadriplegic’s olfactory nerve and injected it into his spinal cord which produced some voluntary movement of his legs.

This research is breathtaking in its persistence (it’s the culmination of 40 years research) and all of the possibilities.

Frankly, I don’t know what this portends for the future, but I am confident that newly injured people will have a very different future than I was given 37 years ago.

When I was injured, I was told what you have now is what you will have. No hope.

Believe it or not, living without hope turned out to be a blessing. That’s because after my period of despair, self-loathing and depression, I knew I had to live with the body I had. It was a blessing because I had begun living this difficult life day by day and not postponing it because I was waiting for the cure.

I don’t know what people with spinal cord injuries are being told today about what the future might look like. I know that this research opens up people’s minds and hearts and may give them hope.

But hope is a two-edged sword. For those of you who read Pandora’s box, you might remember that all of the evils of the world were contained in that box. Despite being told not to open it, Pandora open it anyway and almost all of the evils got out. But she quickly closed the door and one of the evils stayed in the box. Hope.

How can hope be evil? After all, everyone from research and clinical psychologists to theologians tell us we cannot live without it. However, I’ve known and treated many people whose lives have been diminished because they held out hope — hope that their parents would change or that they would find the ideal spouse or that they would walk again. I even know people I went through rehab with who went home and refused to start their lives because they knew they would walk again. Hope can lead to despair and self-absorption. Hope can lead people to feel like a victim when their hopes keep getting dashed repeatedly. That kind of hope can lead to social and emotional paralysis.

Okay, so we cannot live without hope and yet hope can destroy one’s life.

You see, hope that heals is more of a strategic plan. If you hold out hope that something external will change in your life, make that the goal. Then map out the steps you have to take to achieve that goal. And even if you never achieve it, the research shows that working towards a goal increases your overall well-being. It seems that the active pursuit of the goal one hopes for releases endorphins and dopamine (the body’s natural antidepressants) in the brain.

Here’s one area of hope that can change the arc of our lives. Hope for well-being or comfort inside one’s own skin. Here is an area of hope that we do have at least some control over. And we can generate a strategic plan here, knowing we have little control over the outside environment and much more over the inside environment. We can cultivate well-being through generosity, gratitude and nurturing intimate relationships.

We can increase comfort inside of our own skin by practicing opening up our hearts to others. By experiencing our lives day by day with kindness and compassion. By having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with kindred spirits. That’s because more we open, the more we are accepted, the less we have to prove ourselves.

So to my friends with spinal cord injury, I wish this research would develop into fruition quickly and that we can realize Christopher Reeve’s dream for a cure.

But more important, I wish whether you walk again or not you will experience a lifetime of well-being and comfort.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.