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The Trouble with Hope

by John Ptacek

Inspiration image

I had a strained relationship with hope before my wife was diagnosed with cancer. To me, hope was a high waiting for a low, a fix with a nasty flipside.

Far from the precious entity exalted by legions of poets and philosophers, hope was just another coordinate on the pain and pleasure cycle, existing in infinite balance with its opposite. In the same way that happiness alternates with sadness, or desire with loss, hope alternates with fear. One requires that the other exist.

Hope was for suckers, and I was no sucker.

Or so I reasoned. The times I didn’t need hope, that is. But when life would clobber me over the head with misfortune, there I was, clinging to hope like a dear, misunderstood friend. Since my wife’s diagnosis, however, my relationship with hope is no longer strained. It’s been severed completely. I’ve abandoned hope, and in the process have met a new friend: peace.

Surrender meant discarding the idea that life is always supposed to be wonderful; it’s just supposed to be life.

To abandon hope is to trample the plotline of feelgood movies, to renounce the rhetoric of sweating preachers, and to earn puzzled looks from hopers everywhere. Hope soothes and inspires. It builds churches and sells books. Hope is widely thought to be the last coin in our pocket, the one thing we can never afford to lose.

But what is hope, exactly? What does it look like away from the flickering glow of votive candles? Isn’t hope just wishful thinking? Isn’t it just slapping a happy ending on an unhappy beginning?

We want to be happy all the time, and why not? It beats sad, lonely, and a host of other unpleasant but inevitable human conditions. When we’re not happy, we hope. We paint a bright future with our thoughts and wait for it to materialize. However rickety, this logic makes just enough sense to ease a frightened mind.

Time spent hoping for happier days is time spent turning away from life in its infinite poses of glory.

Implicit in hopeful thinking is the mistaken notion that we are separate entities existing outside the flow of an exquisitely connected universe, that we are as in control of our destinies as we are our individual retirement accounts. Hope is our silent prayer that misfortune is meant for one of the other six and a half billion people in the world, but not us.

In small doses, hope is not toxic. It only nips or stings. When our home team loses, when no one asks us to dance, when we tear up lottery tickets, our hopes are dashed and we’re left to survey the space between our expectations and reality.

That space grows into an abyss for those attempting to stall reality with hopeful thoughts during times of peril. Thoughts eventually dissolve, while reality stands pat. We blink, and it’s still there. Rays of hope meant to banish our darkest fears in the end only illuminate them, and we crumple into a state of surrender. At least, I did.

Surrender was where I stumbled into peace. I didn’t give up on life; I just stopped trying to outwit it. Surrender meant discarding the idea that life is always supposed to be wonderful; it’s just supposed to be life.

Time spent hoping for happier days is time spent turning away from life in its infinite poses of glory: the elegant curve of my wife’s newly hairless head, the game smile poking through her fatigued expression, the mountain of getwell cards rising above a sea of orange pill bottles. Beauty borne from tragedy acquires a sacred dimension that can only be witnessed by a surrendered mind, a mind that isn’t chasing after the next “happy face” moment. To picture my wife with hair again, to imagine her digging in the garden or strutting back off to work, is to add time where none is needed, to ignore the beauty right under my nose, and to allow futile hope to intrude on an otherwise peaceful day.

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John Ptacek writes for a living. His wife, Kitty, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer more than four years ago. They live in Whitefish Bay, WI. John’s essays appear on his website, On Second Thought, at johnptacek.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2011.