Elizabeth Lesser Reminds Us the Power of Hope to Awaken Our Spirits 

 I spent all of yesterday at the Eleanor Roosevelt home, Val Kill, in Hyde Park, New York. Every year an award is given to several women and men whose work and lives echo Mrs. Roosevelt’s values and legacy. This year one of the recipients was a beloved friend of mine, Loung Ung. Loung is best known for her trilogy of memoirs that recount her childhood in Cambodia during the reign of the infamous Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Two years ago Loung and Angelina Jolie turned the first of Loung’s memoirs—First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembersinto an award-winning film. The film and Loung’s beautiful books (they are so worth reading) recount the murder of her parents and siblings along with two million other Cambodians, and how she was forced, at seven years old, to become a child soldier. The books also tell the tale of courage—the courage to survive, to rebuild a life, and mostly, the courage to choose hope over despair, and love over revenge.

Loung went on to become a renowned activist who travels the world working for human rights. You might think Loung Ung would be a dour person, with her history and resume, but she’s one of the most exuberant, fun-loving people I know. She worked hard to heal from the wounds of war—she had to reclaim her capacity for forgiveness, trust, love, and joy.

Being around her and the other winners of the Eleanor Roosevelt award yesterday reminded me that I don’t want to descend into despair about our country and our world. It’s not hard to go there, what with the 24-7 news cycle that fills my heart with sadness about the breakdown of democracy, about racism and sexism and all the other isms, about climate change, about over-population and the diminishing wilderness, and, and, and. But even though I cannot turn away from the state of our country and the world, I do not want to focus only on the negative. It’s bad for me! It’s bad for all of us. I think it’s important to add hope and perspective into the conversations we have every day. If we give in to despair and fear, I don’t know if we’ll survive these times. We certainly won’t thrive.

It’s been shown in brain experiments that the whole body is affected by a fear-based, gloomy, negative outlook. You can find all sorts of scholarly articles that show how feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can upset the body’s hormone balance, deplete the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damage the immune system. I feel that the immune system of our country is getting damaged now by fear and vitriol and despair. Most certainly we must work politically and systemically on the real problems, but at the same time, we can spread stories of hope, historical perspective of times as bad and worse than ours, and humankind’s irrepressible spirit of innovation and resilience. Injecting hope and telling stories about people doing excitingly different things in the world is a way of awakening that spirit in others.

That’s why the crowd in the tent at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home at Val Kill yesterday leaped to their feet after Loung Ung told her story of love over hate, and determination over despair. She gave us all an injection of resilience. So maybe today when a conversation goes into the negative zone, you can share something good you saw happen, something noble and wholesome you helped to create or hope to create. Maybe you can counter the repetitive stories of us vs. them, with love stories, or actions stories–perhaps a rallying cry to get out the vote on November 6. Anything that interrupts the stories of small-mindedness and fear.

ELIZABETH LESSER is the author of several bestselling books, including Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and Marrow: Love, Loss & What Matters Most. She is the co-founder of Omega Institute, recognized internationally for its workshops and conferences in wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. She has given two popular TED talks, and is one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, a collection of a hundred leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.

This essay was featured in the Oct. 21st edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




phone mockup of the sunday paper

Get Above the Noise
Subscribe to The Sunday Paper

phone mockup of the sunday paper

An award-winning newsletter that Inspires Hearts and Minds — and Moves Humanity Forward. We publish premium content that makes you feel Informed, Inspired, Hopeful, Seen, Supported, and most importantly not alone on your journey to The Open Field.