Hope in the Face of Suffering 1

Scrub Jay standing against a background of trees - finding hope in beauty - by Bill Williams from Unsplash

Hope in the Future

What is hope?

Could it be trust in a new generation, the joy we feel when we watch young animals at play, babies being born? In our yard, a family of scrub jays has nested in the holly tree. As I write, the father submerges himself in the bird bath while the mother feeds their baby seeds and insects from the garden. Watching them, I smile, thinking of beauty and life that will continue after I am gone.

Or could hope be the belief in an existence after death? At the hospital, I sit with a woman who is sick and weary from cancer. She begs me to give her a shot so she can go “home” to see her parents. Is she giving up or simply longing for that which she hopes will be better than the pain she feels now?

Scrub Jay standing against a background of trees - finding hope in beauty - by Bill Williams from Unsplash

Hope in Letting Go

Maybe, instead, we find hope modeled by the siblings who refuse to accept that their father cannot survive much longer. Although the patient is tired and ready to go, his children pray for a miracle and demand aggressive treatment because “God can’t cure him if he isn’t alive.” Surely this is hope, a hope in things to come. Yet perhaps a greater hope would be to bow to the universe and say, “Enough,” to believe we can survive, no matter what happens.

Then there’s the the woman whose liver disease has befuddled her mind and ravaged her body, who can barely hear anymore, yet who survives one crisis after another. Time and again, she asks to detox, promising she wants to stop drinking, yet she relapses in a few days or a month? How many times should we let her go into treatment? How many times should we take care of her after she falls? But what do we do instead? Send send her home to drink herself to death? What if the next detox would make all the difference? What if it doesn’t and next week she dies? Is it all a waste? Does she even have a right to hope?

Hope would say that of course she does. We all need hope, no matter how far gone we are. With hope, we can let go, give up, accept the cycles of life, and put our faith in others to carry on after us. You might say that hope allows us to live, but also allows us to die.

Hope in the Face of Mesothelioma

Twenty years ago, my father developed mesothelioma, a lung cancer usually caused by exposure to asbestos. Once diagnosed, my father was given six months to live. He made it a little longer than that. His wife told me it was because they kept setting new goals. He would live until his grandson’s birthday, or his birthday, or their anniversary. Then all the upcoming celebrations passed, and they didn’t make another goal. Shortly after that, he died.

Where was hope? For at least a little while, my father hoped he might receive some experimental, but effective, medicine. Later, her hoped to leave a legacy, that his presence on Earth would have meaning for others or for the universe. Then, giving up plans and dreams and even hope, he died.

During that year when he was sick, I believed in some essence or presence or rightness that held the world together and expanded the universe, but I would not have called it God, and I certainly didn’t pray to it. Yet if any circumstance seemed to demand prayer, I figured it was my father’s illness. After all, I didn’t want to lose him.

A Time to Be Born, to Die, and to Pray

So I tried to pray, and all I could pray for was that God’s will be done. Is Ecclesiastes right? Is there a time to be born and a time to die, or is it random?

How do I know?

Given my ignorance, I couldn’t bring myself to pray for deliverance. To do so seemed short-sighted. What if the best thing for everyone was that my father die? If so, I would be praying for the wrong thing. Not that I think it matters, really, what I pray for, because I don’t believe I have the power to dictate world or family events. If I thought I did, I’d be scared, for that would be more responsibility than I could handle.

About ten years later, my fourteen-year-old son was injured. We didn’t know if we would live or die. Again, I could not pray, certainly not for his survival. I could only sit and endure the waiting. I could only exist, taking in one breath, releasing it, and breathing again. For me, in that moment, hope did not exist, not inside me, not around me, not anywhere in the world. Perhaps to hope would have made the possibilities too real, or maybe I didn’t dare hope because if my hope was dashed, I would be destroyed. By rejecting hope, I tried to prepare myself for a loss larger than I could imagine.

Hope in the Face of Birth and Death

One autumn night, I was paged to the hospital to be with a woman who was giving birth to a baby whose organs were deformed. The family knew she would live only a few days or a month.

When I arrived, the mother asked for prayers of support, comfort, and strength. She wanted to be able to trust in Jesus and Mary and in the God she loved. She asked me to stay with her and her husband through the labor, to lend them my strength, my serenity, my belief in a deity that longs only for our good.

Where is the hope in bringing a doomed child into this world?

Everyone finds his or her own way to believe, trust, hope. For myself in such moments, I don’t hope for a miracle of healing, nor do I hope that God will take away the family’s pain. We cannot get through grief without some measure of agony, after all.

Letting God Speak through Me

I do have hope, however, that if I ask God, or the essence or the presence or the rightness, to help me know what to do, to give me the words, to allow me to hold this mother and father with a compassion deeper than any I know myself, then I will find a way to do those things. I do have hope that I can embrace a grieving family with a serenity beyond my own, and I do hope it might make some small bit of difference for them and in the world.

When the little girl was born, and she cried and was placed on her mother’s deflated belly, and when the father stroked the damp and matted hair on the infant’s head, the mother asked me to bless the baby.

With a prayer of hope that I might say something of worth, I made the sign of a cross on the little one’s forehead and asked that God bless her with all the joys of life, with rain and sun and music and gentle touch, that no matter how long or short her life, it be filled with a generation of living, breathing, and laughing. And I asked that the mother and father be blessed, as well, that they find the strength and courage to love this little being with all their heart, to care for her, nurture her even they know, that far too soon, they would be asked to let her go.

A Baby Angel

After that, the couple’s first child was brought into the room to greet her little sister. The mother told the five-year-old that the infant was an angel sent to earth to live with them for a little while and to bless them with her presence.

In that story, I heard so much hope. I heard the hope that even a day is long enough to make a difference, that a five-year-old girl can learn to love and let go, that gifts come to us through tears as well as joy, and that God works in mysterious ways.

Buddhist Understanding of Hope

In Buddhist literature, I have read that hope can be a problem. When we hope, we look to the future rather than being mindful in the present. We have hope because at this moment, there’s something we don’t like, that we feel aversion to, and because there’s also something we want, that we crave.

Certainly hope can be an escape. We can live in our dreams of something better to come.

On the other hand, as even the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “sometimes, just thinking about what we might gain in the future gives us energy.” [1] What is this, if not hope?

Sharon Salzberg, another Buddhist teacher, writes, “Every so often, if we are fortunate, we catch a glimpse of a quality of happiness or freedom in another human being that is not bound to conditions, that sustains them even through extraordinary suffering.” [2] Perhaps this wise being has no need of hope. In knowing her, however, we are fortunate because we find. We realize that someday, if we do what she has done, we might know the same kind of joy that she feels.

Hope, Fear, and Despair

 

Yet such joy does not come easily.

James H. Cone, in his book Risks of Faith, talks about the hope of Martin Luther King, Jr. His very Christian hope arose out of his life as a black person and from the theological richness of the black church in which he grew up. Cone points out that those “who have not lived in the context of hundreds of years of slavery and suffering are not likely to express an eschatological hope of freedom.” Such a hope “is always derived from the suffering of people who are seeking to establish freedom on earth but have failed to achieve it.” [3]

In this, we find another kind of hope. Out of our despair, our misery, and even our hopelessness, comes a hope that allows us to survive. When fear and pain threaten to overwhelm us, when hope recedes into an eternal present in which no future even exists, we find ourselves lost not in hopelessness so much as in stillness. We are emptied of ourselves and wait in breathlessness.  Then time moves, our hearts beat, the world becomes a place again, and emotions wash over and through us.

Hope and the End

So what is hope?

Hope is a scrub jay feeding her child, a mother telling the story of an angel, a woman promising to stay sober, a family letting go. Hope is parents living and dying, babies being born, beauty everywhere. It is death, and destruction, and the promise of a love so big, it can hold us all.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 216.
  2. Salzberg, Sharon, A Heart as Wide as the World, Boston: Shambhala, 1999, 182.
  3. Cone, James H., Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 2000, 81.

Photo by Bill Williams on Unsplash


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