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Hope Revisited

August 9, 2022 Alan Acosta University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School


This blog started in 2018 as supplement of an article I published in 2017 in the Journal of College and Character related to hope. I wrote the original article as an update from an article I wrote in grad school sometime in 2015 (side note of advice for all grad students out there: Always see if there is an opportunity to turn your class papers into a publishable work. It is difficult, rejection is likely, and most papers may not naturally incline themselves to that goal, but if it works out, the results can be fantastic). I bring up these dates because the world looked and felt markedly different in 2015 than it does today. It is amazing how just seven years can feel like a lifetime ago.

Like many of you, I have kept an eye on events across the world, particularly in the U.S. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions assaulting what I assumed were basic freedoms, continued racialized mass gun violence, concerning changes to election laws, and other actions I find disconcerting continue to happen at a rate with which it is almost difficult to keep up. I sometimes feel like we are living a new chorus of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, only there is no catchy melody on this soundtrack, and even if there were, I would not want to sing along. These actions have drained my spirit and sapped much of my joy. At times it felt like so much sadness enveloping that it made me feel a bit lost, confused, and angry.

Recently, these kinds of events have been a backdrop to many reflections I have been having since I wrote the original piece. Quite frankly, the state of the world today made me question my thoughts and feelings around hope. I wrote at one time hope was not a wishful feeling, but instead it was a series of intentional, thoughtful action-oriented process of accomplishing one’s goals. I still think this perspective on hope is mostly correct, however, I feel like now, with all of the sadness which often pops up in the news, the common conception of hope, one focused on feelings, optimism, and a bright outlook are essential. There have been moments where I have asked myself existential questions of why I should continue to believe in hope or if hope is even worthwhile or possible. How can I continue to work effectively towards my goals if my positive optimism is dimmed? How do I effectively show up in my work and continue to encourage students to maintain their hope if mine is diminished? And what do I do if I feel like I cannot summon that courage and strength anymore?

In my conversations with my colleagues, I get the sense these sorts of existential questions are ones which higher education administrators are struggling with right now. And for good reason. The world itself does not provide many reasons with which to be optimistic. And when you work in an industry which has perpetually struggled with long hours of difficult work for less-than-ideal compensation, it can be hard to focus on or find the positive.

It was not until recently in talking with friends, family, and other important people in my life that I realized that focusing on what I can control is in fact the only thing I can control. That does not mean I do not think about the concerning things happening in the world or do not let these societal issues affect me. Rather, I focus on what I can do to take care of myself and maintain my optimism while these concerning things are happening. I have learned doing so is what true wellness looks like.

Each of us in the higher education industry need to find the methods, activities, and behaviors which make sense to us to focus on our own wellness, first and foremost. One of the hardest lessons I have been and continue to learn is focusing on my own wellness is not a luxury, it is a necessity. There are a number of stories I have told myself over the years about why I have not done so. The honest truth is I always felt my obligation to my students, staff, colleagues, or family were more important than the obligation I have to myself and my personal wellness, that somehow, I was being selfish for focusing on myself. I have realized that if I do not focus on what I need to be well, I can never truly meet the obligation I have, real or perceived, to those around me. I have also realized the obligation to myself and my wellness is in fact the most important obligation I have. This is not to say I have mastered wellness in my life or have found the “right answer” for wellness that all should copy. Instead, I have found things I can do which help me feel a better sense of wellness. Each of us must find what works for us.

I encourage all higher education administrators to spend some time reflecting and deciding what you need to start to feel well. Lots of different options exist: meditation, physical exercise, counseling or therapy, recreational or leisure activities, or quality time with those with whom we care. No matter what it is, find and do that thing as often as possible. And if you go through a period where you realize you are taking a focus off of your wellness, do not beat yourself up or shame yourself for “failure;” instead, recenter yourself around your wellness and move forward. Doing so has helped me feel more optimistic each day regardless of the state of the world. If we each do our part, perhaps our collective hope can make a difference.