article written by Giulia Altera – Iceeft newsletter no. 61 April 2024

Lorenzo Mattotti photo of the author at the Santa Giulia Museum Foundation exhibition

This postcard comes from a route called “No Hope Road,” a place that, in theory, should not even exist. A land that, according to the sentimental geographers, is just a myth, like lost civilizations, the child and nemesis of another myth: hope itself.

These geographers say hope is just another name we give to stubbornness, to the desperate attempt to get ahead and make things work.

They say hope is a “legend.”

They say hope is a utopia and — as such — it is not real.

Basically, they say hope does not exist.

If hope does not exist, then neither can its nemesis: “No Hope Road.” They are at best flip sides of the same pattern that could also be named as “The road of lost hope.”

Wait.  Here I am!

But let’s take a few steps backward.

As I find myself in one of these moments, there is a great forest around me. It is as magnificent as mysterious. I’m walking even though my first steps are uncertain – as always – I am not afraid, since I chose to enter it. Around me, in front and behind, above and below, is the vast and wonderful  forest of the human soul.

The branches of the trees intertwine, the trunks bend and touch, and the foreheads point to the sky, seeking light and sunshine. The scent is intense. On the ground, moss and mushrooms, ivy climbing the barks, brambles and berries. The music of the forest is made of wind and crunching leaves, of sounds and breaths. Of sudden silences, cries, broken and barely whispered voices. The creatures around me talk, sometimes crying, sometimes hesitating, holding back. Some seek me out and approach. Some run away.

This is the forest of the human soul, it is wonderful as well as mysterious, full of emotions that sing the melody of life and dance the dance of attachment.

As I continue to walk, I notice to my left, there is a path which opens onto a road with a sign that says “No Hope Road.” So yes, here I am!

I’m wondering in this moment, how it is possible to walk in a place that , according to sentimental geographers, does not exist.

As I pause to consider, I notice I’m feeling lot’s of emotions looking at this road and slowly walking into it. I know that emotions are not conditions, not states, nor status, but are at the end of what make us “move.” So why do I swant to run away yet feel so stuck in my head, trying to find my compass?

States are static by definition, full of compass considerations and stuck places. In contrast, movements are not. Not even those of the soul. Calling them “states,” sentimental geographers draw their boundaries, raise palisades, and build walls that become prisons.

The Road of Lost Hope is just a motion of the human heart. A motion repressed, denied, obstructed. Yes, hope is a motion of the human heart.

Again, emotions are not conditions, not status, but are “motions.”

Thinkers and philosophers throughout the ages have walked the road of hope, and its absence. 

For Aristotle, hope is an act of the will that arises from a virtuous habit that in potency tends toward the attainment of a future good, that is difficult but not impossible to achieve.

For Seneca and the Stoics, man must conform to the rational order (ομολογία) by nullifying his passions (apatheia) if he is to attain wisdom, the guarantee of a peaceful life. And among the passions to be set aside, hope is in the first place since “the wise man is he who knows how to live without hope and without fear.”

For Cartesio, “The affections of hope and fear cannot be good in themselves.”

For Spinoza, “Hope is nothing but an inconstant joy born of the image of a future or past thing whose outcome we doubt.”

For the existentialists, the appeal to hope is a central point. For example, Karl Jaspers states, in the vein already traced by Søren Kierkegaard, that “we are given anguish. But anguish is the foundation of hope.”

If “anguish is the foundation of hope,” then let’s take a quick glimpse on this very real road. It is made up of loneliness, of broken dreams, of broken mirrors that create labyrinths in which you get lost, where monsters hunt you, where helplessness crushes you. Where you turn, you twist, and the more you try to escape, the more you end up back where you started. And you no longer even find your way back to the main road, just trying to at least keep walking.

But I wonder who lives here?  So many people: some moved here recently, some were born here, some were brought by force, and some chose to live here at some point because, at least, it was a place to stay when the alternative was to stay nowhere.

I walk slowly, on tiptoe, and peek through some of the windows  – some have their curtains drawn, some have their shutters barred.

At No. 3, there lives a couple of people who shout often. They yell, they argue, they slam doors.

At No. 7, a single person lives, the kind of person who talks to themsef. There is no one next to this person, no one to talk to, no one to ask for help. No one to rely on. Sometimes, this person yells at the sky and at people, asking to be saved, begging for one minute of hope, ready to pay any pusher of hope, and any dealer of relief.

In No. 11, two people live who have stopped talking to each other. One of them does not speak out of fear. The other out of anger.

In No. 15, there is so much difficulty for a person crushed by guilt, inadequacy, and comparison with others. This person thinks, “I will never make it, never be able to live a normal life. Others will always find satisfaction and I will not.”

The entire neighborhood is populated with fear, loneliness, and shame. Loneliness hovers in the air and always does, even among people.

Stigma Leads Shame

Lorenzo Mattottiphoto of the author at the Santa Giulia Museum Foundation exhibition

There is a strong social stigma against those who live on this street. Since no one should live here and no one should talk about this place, the residents feel shame. Living here is embarrassing, that’s why the inhabitants don’t like talking about this neighborhood. They don’t give anyone their address.

Sometimes even we as therapists can feel lost going through these places.

There are so many faces, so many eyes that resemble eyes from the past – eyes and looks that they fear to see in their future. Eyes that resemble their own eyes in so many moments. It is so easy to connect to these feelings sometimes. – sometimes we have experienced them in our lives, sometimes we are experiencing them to the point where we wonder what hope we have of being good therapists. And sometimes we let all these voices convince us that maybe there really is no hope left, that maybe we make mistakes so frequently that we are killing their hope.

They’d love to stop to be afraid and ashamed. They’d really appreciate to feel free to walk in there, even to become a resident for a while. They need to know that whatever they feel is the right feeling: it’s acceptable, and it’s fine. Always.

How do I feel, as therapist, wandering around in this very real neighborhood?

I feel lost and disoriented, so much that I begin to feel some anxiety. My heartbeats quicken. My breath becomes short. The forest seems to want to swallow me up. Then I stop. I breathe again, but slower. I raise my eyes and antennas.

I wonder:

What am I looking for? What are they looking for?

What do I really need to find my way? To help them to find their own way?

How will I find the energy to go back in again, voluntarily, hour after hour after hour?

How am I going to find the energy to help those who live there and would like to move in, when even I sometimes rent a room in the central hotel and think about signing a contract with no expiration date?

Suddenly, I realize that I might need a compass. Maybe, the same “compass” that helped me in the vast and wonderful forest of the human soul.

I remember my first journeys. My initial steps. If I look back, I can recall I was almost expecting to catch a glimpse of Little Red Riding Hood with her basket, or Hansel and Gretel holding their little hands. I walked. I studied, I explored. I looked at signs, smelled the environment, listened to different harmonies, tried to tune into the forest to figure out where to go.

But, most of all, I looked for my way. At that moment, I felt that I needed a “compass.”  I immediately realized that the compass was not an artifact, but something that has existed for as long as life has existed on our planet. The “compass” I needed was – and still is – attachment, love: the essence of life itself, the principle that regulates and safeguards it. The most powerful drug in the universe. The Sun of every forest. The dance that nourishes every fiber of our being, the physiological sustenance of our every cell.

This magnificent compass is kind of magic. Yet is not “the solution”, which can assume different shapes and can take different roads.

It is just a way. My way, our way, the emotion way, and it is a way made up of being there, and staying there, and remaining open and always ready to welcome.

Even if we lose our compass for a while.

Bibliography:  On the image of the “No-Hope road”

“Stati d’animo” – Beniamino Sidoti – 2nd Edition October 2018

I was inspired to write this story by reading a book: “Stati d’animo” (States of mind), written by Beniamino Sidoti, an extraordinary fabulist who has always worked on the borderline between play and storytelling. In this book, he is a little bit Gordon Pym and a little bit Gulliver and takes us on an engaging, fantastic and imaginative journey.