Thursday, September 2, 2010


Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.
-Lin Yutang

On Tuesday I learned that my Gram’s sarcoma, treated with arduous surgery and radiation last year, probably has returned. It has sent a shock of fear through the whole family, especially my dad. My grandparents are in their 90s and have been slowing down over the past five years, but feistily have held onto their independence, living an hour’s drive south from most of the rest of the family. The recurrence of the cancer has brought all of us face to face with the Unknown, and with our fears--of illness, pain, death. Not easy territory.

We are hardly the only family confronting a loved one's life-threatening challenge. Amongst the bloggers I follow, the oft-hilarious tropical photographer Jan Messersmith at Madang - Ples Bilong Mi has kept us, his readers, attuned to news of his own beloved Eunie’s recent diagnosis of gallbladder cancer. His stark honesty as he walks his path through the Unknown has moved me.

And no doubt you’ve all seen news footage of the 33 miners trapped 2200 feet underground at a mine in Copiapo, Chile. For those who missed it: A tunnel collapse August 5 cut off an escape route for the men, who are holed up in a space the size of a hotel room. On August 22, rescuers contacted the miners and rejoiced that they still live. Experts believe it may take until Christmas (!) to get them out:

Ironically, I did not know about Gram’s cancer when I chose today’s virtue of Hope--and the news has resulted in a longer posting than planned. I hope (ahem) all four of you reading will bear with me...

Most Westerners have some familiarity with Hope as one of Christianity’s theological virtues. We recognize the phrase “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” sometimes expressed as “Faith, Hope, and Love,” even if we don’t know their origin in a letter written by Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13).  It surprised me that few non-Christian traditions list Hope among their recognized virtues, though modern-day psychologists Peterson and Seligman cite it as an aspect of the universal human virtue Transcendence. The 14th century Duke of Burgundy counted it as a virtue of chivalry, but that’s still a Christian tradition. I found cultures with notions of Faith (e.g. the Chinese virtue of Xin Xin) and Steadfastness (the Celtic virtue of Fossad), yes, but not Hope. Why?  

It may have something to do with how Christian authors define this virtue. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains Hope as an innate trait instilled in the human soul by the Divine and intimately interwoven with a belief in the Christian God (referred to by Druid Anne Johnson of The Gods Are Bored as “the busy god.”)

How does Hope differ from Faith? From my reading, it appears that Faith, for the Christian theologians, has something to do with your creed, your belief in things you know, or at least think you know, about the Divine. Hope, on the other hand, has more to do with what you don’t know. I find it easiest to think of Hope as the absence of despair, made possible by a sort of fundamental acknowledgement that the Divine has more tricks up Her sleeve than we know. One of the other titles for Hope might be Infinite Possibility. The sentiment “It may yet turn out well in the end” captures this idea; a more theistic version might be “God has a plan for me.” This seems to apply whether we face a health crisis, or an existential one.

The Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas wrote at length about Hope in his Summa Theologica, and scholar Cathleen Kaveny gives a nice summary of his views here. In short: 1) Hope is not naive optimism, but has a toughness born of knowing the desired end will not come easy. 2) It requires work. 3) It often requires the help of others. 4) It leaves the time of its future fulfillment open to uncertainty.

While Christians, apparently uniquely, have framed Hope as a virtue, many traditions acknowledge its importance in daily life. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod, for example, recorded the myth of Pandora, who loosed all the evils upon the world, with the last entity left in her jar being Elpis, Goddess of Hope. More modern thinkers have taken Hope out of its religious context, while acknowledging its centrality to making our way through life. Ernst Bloch, for example, in his Principle of Hope pinned a vision of Marxist utopia on this human quality.

Personally, after the hell of my past year, I feel lately as if I sit down to tea with Hope and Despair everyday, served at an elegant table in a sweltering, overgrown jungle of a garden. Sometimes Hope serves, sometimes Despair: “One lump, cher, or two?” “Um, gosh, so far it’s felt like hundreds of lumps--so many I can’t find the tea. Let alone the sympathy!” Despair looks up and gives me a carnivorous grin. From underneath her floppy ridiculous hat, meanwhile, Hope gives me a slightly embarrassed sympathetic grimace, holds her finger up to her lips and says with her eyes: Wait, cher. Just... wait...  

It would be easy at this Existential Tea Party, with these alternatingly tortuous and ineffectual guests and the bitter, tannic tang of very bad Earl Grey straining through my teeth, to just dump spoonfuls of sugar into my cup and stare into the distance, or doze off, or excuse myself for a mercifully-beheading game of croquet with the Queen of Hearts. But there’s something about that meaningful look Hope shoots me--as if she wants to say something, but due to some sort of geis can’t bring herself to do so...

At this moment a rather dapper quartet of Knights break out of the jungle as they charge and leap our table, surrounded by a panoply of barking hounds and yelping attendants. (Or is that “yelping hounds and barking attendants”?) The First Knight blows a rather horrible vuvuzela-esque hunting horn in my face, leans his bewhiskered countenance down into my face, and says, “Rather wretched tea party, wot?” His companion, a slender, smiling chevalier--and to my mild surprise, a woman--leans past him and says, knowingly: “You don’t have to keep sitting there, you know.”

Further back, another of the Knights, a tenor-voiced paladin, says, “There’s more to the Party than this table, here.” And the last Knight, a rosy-cheeked boy of perhaps fourteen, hardly old enough to be a page, shouts: “Come with us!” And sounding like a troupe of elephants, a cyclone, and a bomber jet all mixed together, they rumble off into the Garden, trailed by the chaotic entourage.

It’s quiet, now. A few jungle birds can be heard hooting and calling in the distance. I look over at Hope. She bites her lip as if she’s about to break into a big grin, and nods her head towards the curtain of shrubbery through which the Knights have just bulldozed. Then, leaning down under the table, she brings out... a pair of heavy riding boots, caked with mud, which she plunks down in the middle of the table, much to Despair’s, well, despair. She leans down again, and on top of the boots drops a well-worn, rusty machete. Elpis touches the side of her nose, and winks...

So, every time I think I can no longer stand a minute longer at the table of the Dreadful Tea Party, I run into those barking, yelping Four Noble Truths. Yes, there is suffering--so long as I am dozing, cup in my hand. Our lot on The Swiftly Tilting Planet can shake us down, or shake us Awake. Finding out what’s happening in the rest of the Garden--the real Party we can’t see, out in the Unknown jungle somewhere--that’s the challenge. That’s the choice. The Party is not (only) what happens at the table... And what happens in the Garden does not happen to us, but for us. Hope, that maddeningly silent Goddess, has some mysterious connection to all that wild beyond...

To bring Hope back to a more prosaic but still heroic context: Astronaut Jerry Linenger, who survived a fire on the Russian space station in 1997, commented last week on the situation of the Chilean miners. He, too, acknowledged the essential role of Hope in getting his own team through their crisis:

If the hope is out there, hope can get you through that ordeal... I think it's a testament to mankind, our DNA and our ability to survive.

Whether we believe Hope to be instilled in our souls by the Divine, or in our DNA by natural selection, we can acknowledge its importance in facing life’s challenges. Without Hope, we have no possibilities. I like the image suggested by the Chinese literary-lion-cum-mechanical-genius Lin Yutang, whom I quoted above: Hope does not give us a road to the outcome, but rather emerges after we tread into where we cannot see a road. We find Hope in our encounter with the Unknown, in the undiscovered country of our future and our mettle. She hands us a machete, and a pair of boots, and reminds us that there’s more to the Party than the wretched table.

Whatever your spiritual path, take a moment today to send thoughts of Hope to the miners and their families in Copiapo. And say a prayer for my Gram and my Pop, will you? And for Jan and Eunie...

May we see the gates of Hope, and perhaps make a home there.

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