Where is God when bad things happen? Part 3: Finding hope

with Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen

Is there a valid reason to have hope for something better when things seem to go from bad to worse? This week's guest spent some time researching hope and has put into practice how it greases the wheels for increased and lasting good.


Welcome to this edition of Sentinel Watch, a weekly production of the Christian Science Sentinel. My name is Tony Lobl, and in our last couple of podcasts we’ve been talking about just how hard it can be to read that newspaper or turn on that TV or to get those breaking news alerts on our smartphone and constantly hear things that seem devastating, even insurmountable. Our guests have been answering a big question, “Where is God when bad things happen?” Yet there are ways people choose to respond constructively, and today we want to talk about one of those responses. Hope. Hope is constructive, but is it actually reasonable to hold on to hope when so many bad situations seem to vie for our attention? Our guest today is Hillary Harper Wilcockson. Hilary, welcome to the program. 

Hello, Tony. Great to be here. 

So how do you manage to maintain hope? 

I know when I feel hopeless, it’s almost like, Where did that go? You know, I need hope now and where did it go? And I have found that the best way to rediscover hope in my thought, because that’s, of course, where hope lives is in our consciousness, is to go back to basics and to just ask myself, well, very simple stuff like, Where did good come from in my past? Like, what is the source of good? The good I think I’m lacking now; that I’m clearly lacking. You know, if I look at the material picture and where did that come from in the past? And if I’ve understood a little bit of the source of goodness in the world, in my life, in the universe, if you want to go as large as God, as an all-powerful, loving presence, I kind of can pull myself back from that slough of despair and find a light that takes you out of that tunnel. There is always a light. I really believe that hope is an innate natural quality of all of us. 

Well, hope itself is really quite a large concept, isn’t it? Mm hmm. So I think you’ve spent time exploring that. What have you learned from looking into it? 

Well, you know, my main study always is in the Bible and in Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. I just find those endlessly instructive and inspiring and practical. 

And Mary Baker Eddy, she’s the Discoverer of Christian Science, someone who also had a vested interest in understanding what hope is, and so she’s written books based on her understanding of the Bible as well. 

Yes, absolutely. And well worth looking into her writings. I’ve been an educator now for about 20 years, teaching in both higher ed and elementary school and now running a nonprofit that helps kids in high-poverty situations, homes. And so I’ve done a lot of more academic research. And in looking at best practices in teaching, I came across a wonderful article a few years ago about Hope Theory, which, as someone who is very interested in hope and where it comes from and what it is, I was very excited to see it. It’s by a man named Charles Snyder, and it’s um—

Social scientists, you know, are fascinated with the concept and the quality of hope because it just changes lives. I mean, you just have to think of, you know, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. or, you know, there are lots and lots of people we could point to who under excruciatingly difficult circumstances maintain their hope, and that saw them through to eventual success. So scientists are very interested in that, especially social scientists. And they’re really, really good at analyzing what someone who has that quality can do. You know, they set goals. They find pathways or processes that help them achieve their goal. 

Think of a runner who wants to win the race, you know. Well, right. There’s a lot of process involved in that. And scientists say that it’s how you deal with failure. That’s the real, that’s the kicker. You know, you do all this stuff; you fail. What happens then? And that’s, of course, a mind-set and a way of approaching challenges in our life. Do you see it as this terrible thing that you’re challenged or have a failure to deal with? Or do you see it as an opportunity? 

You know, as you’re saying that I’m just thinking of the recent Olympics, and we saw that in so many cases, didn’t we, where with some people who had failed sometimes for years, had that aspiration and kept that hope and, you know, became a gold medalist or silver medalist or bronze medalist just this time around and often had stories like that. So it’s interesting that you’re pitching that model and we’ve really seen it put into practice there in recent experience. 

Yes. It’s a wonderful, I think, truism with almost anybody. I used to be a professional ballet dancer. And boy, if you couldn’t deal with failing, like all the time because it’s so hard—you basically fail all the time. So if you couldn’t look at that and go, “OK, what did I do wrong? How can I do that better? Let’s try again,” you weren’t going to get anywhere. So it’s wonderful to sort of analyze it and break it apart. 

But my question always is, “Yes, but where does that uplift of hope come from?” You know, we can say, “Well, you set goals and you do go through process and you give it all. You’re all—you’re motivated to give it your all.” But why is one person willing to do that and another person just totally gives up? Why? And I especially—where does it come from when you see it? And I really believe it comes from the same source for everyone, even if they don’t recognize it or talk about it this way. But it comes from God’s love for us. 

I mean, hope is just the most wonderful feeling and expression of God’s love for us and that confident expectancy that something will work out; that good will be present. You know, that’s a very common definition of hope. And I love that. I love that it’s innate. I absolutely believe that hope is an innate quality. 

But, you know, hopelessness can come to any of us for different reasons in our experience. Do you have an example of facing something that felt hopeless in your life? 

Yes, well, I do. It’s a very sweet story. I have been working in Title I schools, which are very high-poverty schools, and as an aide, I am not a trained elementary school teacher. I taught in higher ed, which is very different. But I went in and was an aide in these classrooms, these very young K, 1, 2, you know, that age group, and I had one little girl who was very, very behind in reading skills, early literacy, which is something I care deeply about. I just feel to have the world open up, you really need to read. And well, and so I was trying to help her, but I’m not an expert. 

So anyway, one day I told her that I would take all the books home in the classroom that everybody was reading and read them at night, the chapter books, because I didn’t know them. I’d been out of that age group for so long. And the next day she brought me a book and she said, “Would you read this one tonight? I love this book.” And I did. I took it home. I read it. I came back and I said, “Here it’s back. It’s a wonderful book. You’re right.” And she said, “Will you read it with me?” And it was a much, much higher level than she was ready for. And I told her, you know, “This is a pretty hard book for you.” And she said, “Well, I want to do it. I want to read it.” 

So we found 15 minutes. The teacher let us have 15 minutes a day to go off in a corner, literally on the floor in the hallway kind of thing, and read together, and she could get like every 12th word. I mean, literally that was about her level. But when she’d get a word, especially a harder word, I’d put a big pink heart next to that word in the margin. And after a couple of weeks, there were all these pink hearts over the book. And she was remembering the words that even if she couldn’t do the phonics, she would remember the words that I would read, etc. And she was really improving so quickly. It was extraordinary. And she was so excited about this. 

And finally she said, “Can we invite my best friend to read with us?” And I said, “Sure!” And she was the strongest reader in the class, this other little girl. And she sat down and started reading the book. And I handed the book to the little girl I’d been working with. And she read a whole sentence just completely like no big deal. And the first girl, the strong reader, she was like, “Oh, I didn’t know you could read so good. That’s so great. That’s amazing,” you know, and you can imagine the joy. Yeah. And that showed me. 

That child was from a home that was unbelievably hard. I, you know, I can’t go into descriptions, but there was certainly no one at home who was going to read to this child. There had been no pre-literacy, no talking, no singing, no rhyming, no—none of the stuff that all of us are so accustomed to having young children experience, none of that. Moving all the time, tremendous poverty, all sorts of stuff going on, bad bad stuff. And this child still had hope. And she also had agency, you know. She knew to seek me out to ask me to kind of make that happen. And she knew she needed help in order to read and in order to read this book that her friend loved, who she hadn’t been able to talk to about the book. 

And of course, we all know that’s magic to share a book with your best friend. So it just taught me a lot more than it taught her about the innate quality of hope. And I will say every day that I drove to that school, I had an hour drive and I would listen to our Christian Science Bible Lesson on the way, which was about half an hour. And then the rest of the way, I would just pray to hear God during my day, to see Him in action, to do what I could to express His qualities and let Him just move in our day, my day, my kids’ days. And it was really—that was one of the highlights of that whole year of being there, because I really saw hope just spring up from a very barren soil. 

Yeah, well, that’s incredibly promising. And in terms of that spiritual approach you brought to it, do you want to just explain a bit more what you were really bringing into that classroom with you on that daily basis? 

Well, you know, it was different every day. Honestly, I would often just, I made myself turn the radio off, you know, after I’d hear the Lesson, I wouldn’t put on anything else. It would distract me. And often I would just listen. That’s kind of my go-to for prayer these days. It’s just, “Father, what do You want me to know today? What do You want me to do?” You know, how can I best be an expression of love or intelligence or compassion, creativity, you know, all of the qualities, hope, that are God’s. And so I would just kind of go over some of those ideas every day. 

But, you know, in terms of, have you ever felt hopeless yourself? And and if you do, how do you go from hopeless to hopeful? 

Well, I often think of a feeling I had where I was, I felt very hopeless. And I won’t go into all the details. But it was it was a fairly long-standing, a couple of months at least, where I wasn’t really eating, not sleeping much at all. And the turning point came. I had prayed and prayed. And of course, that’s a whole other topic. What is prayer? 

But I had definitely been turning to God in prayer as best I knew how for all those months, all those hours of all those days. And the turning point came when I was feeling completely hopeless and I agreed to help somebody else as best I could because they had asked for support. 

And at first I thought, I can’t possibly help them. I haven’t—this hasn’t been healed in my experience. They had the same issue with insomnia. But I thought, well, we are called on to be unselfish in this world. That is part of being a Christian. And I’ve certainly been thinking about this for a long time and praying about this. And if I can be of any help at all, I should do this. 

And I called this friend of mine that evening after I’d heard that she’d asked for some help and told her I would help her and spent that evening—instead of praying for myself, which I’d been doing nonstop for three months, I prayed for her. And that night I went to bed, you know, I never slept when I went to bed, but I would always try and go to bed and sleep. I slept a little bit, but very little. And I woke up in the morning. It was morning. It was just extraordinary to me. I was like, what is going on? It’s morning. 

And that broke that mesmeric pull to believe that inharmony is just part of our experience. It’s part of my life. And that broke that night by helping somebody else. And that taught me a really big lesson. And I will say that healing has been permanent. And she also was blessed. And that was many, many years ago. So we do need to listen to God. We need to be unselfish. And sometimes that’s the effort. 

If you want to go back to hope, the hope components, the effort is, you know, maybe doing things that are not the easiest and the most comfortable, but we know are the right things to do. I’m grateful for that. 

Yeah. Well, yeah, I think that’s such a natural thing of a spiritual practice. As you find it effective in your own experience, you expand and reach out to others and it’s really part and parcel of it. Yeah. So just returning to where we started, which is that sense of, you know, some of those utterly intractable problems going on that are causing such consternation. Leave us with something that will help us see through the bad news, to sort of take this idea of hope into news, watching and thinking about those things going on. 

Well, I, you know, for me during those nights of hopelessness, when I wasn’t able to sleep, a lot of times I’d get up and read. And they were hymns, hymns in the Christian Science Hymnal and especially the poems that Mary Baker Eddy wrote that we sing often. And as far as hope goes and how it connects with divine Love, with God’s love, I think the final line in her poem entitled “Love,” is this. So I will leave everybody with this:

Thou to whose power our hope we give,
Free us from human strife. 
Fed by Thy love divine we live, 
For Love alone is Life; 
And life most sweet, as heart to heart Speaks kindly when we meet and part. 

Well, those words from a poem by Mary Baker Eddy really drew us towards the end of this program with a wonderful sense of there being something so much more solid and real and substantial than just hope itself, in which hope is grounded. Hope is grounded in the Love that is God. Divine Love is the reason for our hope. And one of the wonderful things about Christian Science that really is taken right from the Bible is that that Love is infinite. It’s ever present; it’s embracing us. It’s supporting us. It’s the rock on which we stand trustingly in the fact that God, good, divine Love, is able to give us the ideas we need to go forward and not only have hope, but get beyond hope to actual solutions. There’s a beautiful passage in the Bible that says, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God” [Psalms 42:11]. So hope comes to us from God. And it’s true for everyone. So thank you for that poem. What a wonderful way to end the program, Hilary, and thank you for joining us today. 

You’re so welcome, Tony. Thank you. 

Now, before you go, I just want to mention something else. At the beginning of the episode, I mentioned that we’re spending this whole month focused on one big question, “Where is God when bad things happen?” Well, we have one more program in the series, so please check back next week when Jenny Sawyer will be talking to Deborah Huebsch. They’re taking up the question, “Can God get us out of the mess we’re in?” You’ve been listening to Sentinel Watch, a weekly production of the Christian Science Sentinel. I’m Tony Lobl. 

Please note, this transcript is an accurate representation of the podcast audio, it was not edited for print.

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