When you’re old like me, there is often the misconception that you know what you’re doing. People ask for your opinion about their life direction and turn to you for mentoring as they encounter challenges. In my own view, I am more aware of what I don’t know at this age than I’ve ever been. Still, I have learned some lessons along the way, and I try to be realistic and helpful if a younger person asks me for advice.
Truthfully, if I were helping someone build a toolbox for life, there are lots of things I’d suggest—empathy, listening, and a sense of humor chief among them. But if I were asked to limit it to one, I wouldn’t hesitate to name a sense of hope as most essential for managing one’s life and the world. At first glance, hope doesn’t seem like something one can just choose to have. If our lives have been hard and we’ve been treated badly, hope might seem like the last thing we could muster. And when I’ve had a hard day, or I read something terrible about the political conditions in the country, that’s how I feel.
Hope is alive in those who are truly living.
But when I look at my life as a whole, I realize that finding hope has been the force behind any substantial moving forward that I’ve ever done. Sometimes it’s an amazing sunset, or a friend who helps me in a huge, unexpected way, or just my dog cuddling up to me when I’m feeling anxious. Whatever it is, it reminds me that things do change and that I’m not alone. When I feel hopeless, I forget those basic ideas.
As a teenager, trying to imagine how I could ever possibly navigate the world as a person who loved other girls, I became intimately familiar with a sense of hopelessness. There was nothing that I could see ahead of me that looked bright or promising. In my youth, of course, I had no perspective. I did not know that how we feel one day may not be how we feel on another far in the future. And I didn’t know this lesson that I feel I’ve truly learned only in recent years: Hope exists if we consciously put ourselves in situations where life is shining.
It’s why the relief and grandeur of nature are so powerful. There is energy and beauty and simplicity before our eyes, reminding us that the world continues to turn. It’s also why people who are committed to change find hope with each other. When I was a young college student and I joined the Women’s Caucus at my university, I walked away on the first day with a hope I hadn’t known before that. These were women who weren’t just angry that women were treated as second-class citizens; they were fighting it, talking about it, listening to each other, and working on changing the system.
I’m sure my optimism sounds naïve in a certain way, and I am the first to say that positivity alone changes nothing. But without other people, the long battle is even longer. If I feel cynical about the way the world is going, even listening to someone else’s commitment to a cause reminds me that there is hope, that there are people who won’t give up the fight.
I also know that hope is not always easy when one has reached my age. The road ahead is so much shorter, and it would be simple to say, “This is as good as it gets, and it’s not all that great.” But if I engage with the world instead of retreat from it, the energy pulls me in and reminds me of the power of connection. It’s hard to feel that life is going nowhere when I’m trying something new, creating art, listening to music, watching 20-year-olds testing the world for the first time. And this is the reminder: Keep moving, keep reaching out, keeping asking questions. Hope is alive in those who are truly living. Let that be me.