Want to hear a story about hope?
One of my best friends got diagnosed with breast cancer in early March. By the time she could schedule surgery, California hospitals were preparing for the coronavirus onslaught. The Friday before her Monday procedure, her doctors told her that she should show up at 6:00 am, but they couldn’t promise they’d be there.
The night before surgery, one doctor opted out. Her husband drove her to the surgical center and dropped her off (only patients were allowed in). He left not knowing if he’d be picking her up to bring her home or drive to Idaho, the only other place they could find nationwide that was still consistently doing lumpectomies.
I’ll stop there for now, because you get the picture. Human beings can only predict one thing for sure: ultimately, we all will die. That’s the gift of consciousness, one that reminds us daily of our fallibility and fragility.
There is, however, a saving grace: hope.
Before getting into all existential, it’s useful to look at what hope is not. It’s no panacea for all that ails us.
For example, it was an effective campaign slogan for our first African-American president, Barack Obama … until it wasn’t. Witness the crushing backlash, which brought the highest level of hate crimes in 16 years.
We could take the pessimist’s view from the sage punk-poet, Henry Rollins: “Hope is the last thing a person does before they are defeated.” But with all respect to Rollins, that’s only one swing of the pendulum.
A more expansive outlook from Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova shows that hope is, at its essence, also rebellion-fueled — and a basis for action:
It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes.
Get your hopes up
To harness the power of hopefulness, it’s worth considering the work of philosopher Erich Fromm, author of The Revolution of Hope. Fromm fled Nazi Germany, so he knew firsthand “the experience of utter helplessness, disorientation, and uprootedness.”
His take on surviving and staying sane involves skipping past optimism and pessimism to choose a path of persistence instead:
Hope is a decisive element in any attempt to bring about social change in the direction of greater aliveness, awareness, and reason.
Back to my friend and where hope led her: a successful surgery conducted by the two doctors and nurses who elected to show up. Is this a happy ending? For today, absolutely.
And that’s about all we can ever hope for.
An Antidote to Helplessness and Disorientation | Brain Pickings