For the Week of November 6, 2016: The Necessity of Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers 

That perches in the soul, 

And sings the tune without the words, 

And never stops at all…

(From: “Hope is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson)

 We face a presidential election this week, the conclusion to a season of political campaigns unlike any I can remember and one, I hope, I will not witness again.  I have been profoundly saddened and worried as the climate of divisiveness, name-calling, and hatred paint a disturbing portrait a country on the brink of a divide that seems increasingly unable to be bridged.

But I’ve had a reprieve from the soul dampening negativity.  For the past two weeks, I  turned away from it all—no television, no news casts, enacting a self-imposed reprieve from all the repetition of the toxicity that seems to be ailing us as a nation.  I was too busy, caring for two of my grandchildren, ages 7 and 5, as their mother, my daughter, realized a dream to trek in Nepal, and their father was deployed to Afghanistan.  The cares and heaviness of the world slipped away for a time as the days were filled with the sheer delight and demands of taking care of my energetic and delightful grandchildren.

Daily, I was greeted with their enthusiastic “Gramma!” when they awakened each morning, with hugs and “I love yous” and the anticipation of each new school day.  At day’s end,  I was the recipient of more the smiles and hugs  as they bounded from the school bus and reported what they had experienced during the day.  Together, we tackled homework, laughed and read books aloud, and discussed what was happening the next day, whether ballet lessons, soccer practice or a game, a school field trip, or the Halloween storybook costume parade.  They had no worry or despair about the state of the world or the impending election.  Each day was filled with new discovery—and with hope.  “I’ve haven’t heard you sound this happy for months,” my husband remarked when I returned home.  My grandchildren’s unstoppable hope and optimism were good medicine for me.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2011) defined hope as a “vital organ” in a lecture he delivered in San Diego two years ago.  When one of the members of my “Writing Through Cancer” workshop told the group she’d heard him speak the night before our session, she told the group that  “Mukherjee said something really profound last night,” then opened her notebook to find his words she’d written down.  “Hope is a vital organ,” she read from her notes.  Everyone around the table listened intently and asked her to repeat his definition of hope once more so they could write it down in their notebooks.

It’s little wonder the words had such impact in a group of cancer patients and survivors.  According to Mukherjee, hope gives cancer patients added life force.  Is it any wonder then, that in the world of cancer or a troubled world, hope might be one of the most powerful healing agents we possess?

Healing, as you know, is more that medicine and treatments.  It is a process of “becoming whole,” even in the face of something as fearful as a terminal cancer diagnosis. Healing is a multi-faceted process of transformation–inside and out–and while medicine often plays a very important part, hope plays a central role.  In several studies exploring the impact of hope among cancer patients, researchers conclude that hope can help a patient decrease anxiety and increase their quality of life. Even among the terminally ill, hope is an essential resource that helps individuals cope during times of intense physical and psychological distress.

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

(William Carlos Williams, quoted in Mukherjee, p.306).

Hope is an expectation that something good can happen in the future—and it is the expectation I witnessed in my grandchildren every single morning  these past two weeks.  They—and their eager anticipation of each day—were good medicine for me.  I was reminded that hope can be found—waiting, perhaps to be discovered–in many situations in our lives.  I think of Anne LaMott’s 2013 book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, which illustrates how and the ways hope exists–even in a world punctuated by vitriolic political discourse, frequent reports of random shootings, car bombs, civilians being bombed in Syria, natural disasters, hunger or life-threatening disease.  “Hope is a conversation,” LaMott states.  “What allows us to go on and find those small moments of goodness, are to be found in “attention, creation, love, and,” she adds with incomparable wit, “dessert.”

“…those small moments of goodness.”  Hope is what we experience in random acts of kindness, a child’s delight in finding a tree frog as he explores his own yard or runs from the school bus to tell his grandmother he got “100%” on his book report.  It’s present in the test results that show a shrinking tumor or clinical trials of a new therapy; it’s hope we witness with the advent of every spring, when those determined crocuses poke their heads through the ice and snow at winter’s end.   It’s hope, that vital organ we all need to live—and yet, as many of us have felt from time to time, in the noise of crises, negative news reports or the constant thrum of divisive political discourse, hope sometimes seems out of reach…  But it isn’t.  Look around for those small moments of goodness, the daily reminders of that vital life force, hope.

It’s like a drop of honey, a field of tulips blooming in the springtime. It’s a fresh rain, a whispered promise, a cloudless sky, the perfect punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. And it’s the only thing in the world keeping me afloat.”
–Tahereh Mafi, Unravel Me

Writing Suggestion

This week, consider hope.  What role does hope play in your life?  Have you sometimes felt hopeless?  How did you rediscover or regain a sense of hope?  What gives you hope?  Write about it.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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