Ideas & Insights Helplessness vs. Hopelessness

Helplessness vs. Hopelessness


May 19th 2021

Helplessness is about what we cannot do.

Hopelessness is a deeper sense of loss, a feeling we have lost our capacity to help.

We may be feeling helpless, but we have not lost our collective power.

We feel helpless but not hopeless.

The devastating COVID wave of sickness and death all around the world has left us all reeling with sadness. It has also made so many of us feel helpless. What can we do to get oxygen? How can we help loved ones find a hospital? Who will take care of the families left behind? How can we help with the suffering of so many?

These are questions that we ask ourselves at IMAGO and also questions we hear from all the partners we are working with, especially now in India and Latin America. Women, such as the members of SEWA, are on the frontlines dedicating their lives to help women like themselves overcome poverty. The angst and despair felt is universal whether it is SEWA, TRI, Pratham, SRIJAN and Seva Mandir in India or Poverty Stoplight in Paraguay.

While preparing for a workshop with 140 SEWA grassroots leaders I reached out to Harvey Rich, a wonderful psychoanalyst and friend, to understand the inner workings of our grief. As he says in his book opening, his home was a place where people came to grieve. He helped me see the difference between grief and sadness, between helplessness and hopelessness.

We feel helpless when we can not get oxygen when we can’t get food for those that are sick. Hopelessness is something different. It is when we lose our sense of agency. It is about feeling powerless.

Understanding the difference between not being able to provide for an urgent need, and feeling we have lost our inner power is the first step. Reaching out to others who are also feeling helpless is the second. As we have learned this past week, tears can represent love and companionship. Tears are not a sign that we are breaking down but a way of letting us know we are hurting so we can stand together and walk from here; recognizing we might feel helpless, but we have not lost the capacity to work together, hand-in-hand, through these trying times.