Spero, ergo sum

I think there is often a lot going on that we would like to change but can’t, a lot that happens which we would rather ignore but don’t; and it’s difficult to know whether the appropriate response should be hope, despair, or… what, anger? Many of the larger problems that confront us are multifaceted, and often require communal solutions -problems which are unlikely to accept facile, solitary answers unless they have first earned political consensus or have at least been successfully vetted by whatever crowd to which we find ourselves allotted, however liminally.

And anyway, the perspective which any one of us can adopt is probably limited. Constricted. Personal. Or at least we can be accused of that with little recourse. You are you, after all; you are not me; I am not compelled to bend to your opinion, especially if it is different than my own. The more you insist, the more I resist; Newton’s third law seems inescapable: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Still, to do nothing, to remain static and unmoving, is frustrating. Agency, after all, is  intimately woven into our identity. That each of us has options, if only by inference, is an integral aspect of our culture. Take those away, and all that remains, apart from acquiescence, is hope -however vague and unrealistic. And yet, there it is: something -anything- to occupy the void of unfulfillment.

But the more I say about hope, the more I feel I’m talking nonsense; the very word seems like the echolalia of a child. When it comes right down to it, I’m not even sure I know what hope is supposed to be. Is it a refuge or a redoubt? A target or a miss? I realize I should put the word aside for a while; I fully intended to shelve it because I felt, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth confessed, its push would either cheer or disseat me. Fortunately, however, I stumbled upon an essay that promised to unravel the mystery. It was written by two philosophers, Katie Stockdale from the University of Victoria, B.C., and Michael Milona, at Ryerson University in Toronto: https://psyche.co/ideas/even-when-optimism-has-been-lost-hope-has-a-role-to-play

Rather than submitting to the pleasures of hope which ‘comfort us in the midst of profound uncertainty,’ they recognize that this feature of hope can lead us, irrationally, to believe that the outcomes we hope for are more likely than they really are. ‘So, we might become complacent, feeling that things will be okay, whereas panic – or unpleasant fear – might be a more effective source of motivation.’

Both of them subscribe to a more philosophically tenable position. ‘The moments in which we find ourselves hoping are, we think, occasions to reflect on our values. Just as our perceptual experiences can, hope can either guide us toward truth or mislead us… Philosophers are quick to point out that hope is not optimism. While optimism is a confident attitude that something desirable will come about, hope requires only possibility. And we can believe, rationally, that the chances of success are low yet continue to see something as worth pursuing. Sometimes what we want in life is so important that the barest of possibilities is enough for us to go on.’

I like that, especially their observation that ‘Hope isn’t always entirely pleasant, nor does it necessarily provide the sense of comfort that things will be okay.’ And, we can be patient about hope. It doesn’t have to bear fruit today, or next month. It is sometimes enough to believe -to hope- that we are at least heading in the right direction. We might be disappointed, but then again, we might not… ‘Hope does make us vulnerable to disappointment and failure. Yet attending to our fears and anxieties about the future, even embracing them as significant sources of knowledge and motivation, can prepare us emotionally for what is to come… But hope is consistent with these other attitudes, orienting our attention to what is possible and valuable, and what is ultimately worth our efforts.’

There was a time, a few years back, when I discovered a lump in my neck. It was painless, and except for a chance encounter as I drew the covers up to my chin during a cold night in bed, it would probably have remained undetected for months.

The dark and unpopulated early morning hours are notorious for unsubstantiated panic however, and the next day I decided to seek medical advice. I had an ultrasound that morning and on that basis was referred to a specialist. After examining me, she seemed concerned, and suggested an urgent biopsy.

I suppose I was happy that things were being done so quickly, but the look on her face did worry me. She was quiet for a moment, no doubt deciding how best to convey her thoughts. “Of course, there are many things that could cause those lumps (she’d found several more in my neck), but for proper treatment, we need to establish the cause.”

“So… What do you think it might be, doctor…?” I said with forced levity. I assumed it was an infection of some sort, and she just had to decide on the appropriate antibiotic.

At that point, she attempted a smile, but I could see it was strained. “Well… lymph nodes can be a defence to keep infections from spreading…” She hesitated before completing her thought. “But they can also be the target…” She looked at her hands that she had hidden on her lap.

“Target for what?” I said, not really thinking of anything particularly serious.

“Well, G…” she started hesitantly, and then decided to disclose her fears. “Lymphoma -a blood malignancy is the most likely… But it could also be a cancer of the esophagus -the throat,” she added unnecessarily, to be absolutely clear to me. “That’s why I’d like to get the biopsy as soon as possible…” And she unleashed a hand from her lap and reached over the desk and touched my arm.

Unfortunately it was only two or three days before Christmas, so there were no surgeons available for other than emergency, life saving procedures. I wasn’t sure what to do with the intervening time, except to hope that she was wrong. I remember I kept feeling my neck, hoping it was all a dream, hoping that the lumps had magically disappeared, and so I carried on as usual with the interminable chores on my little hobby farm. The chicken coop needed cleaning, and the barn where the sheep slept needed mucking out again. In a way, I was content to keep busy, keep my mind from worrying, keep my hands from feeling my neck.

After a week of that, after a week of dread, I had almost convinced myself the lumps were diminishing. And I kept remembering William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus -especially the stanza ‘In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.’ His attitude buoyed me up; his attitude gave me hope.

And finally, early in January, I had the biopsy under local anaesthetic in the outpatient department of the hospital where I worked. Both the surgeon and the nurse who held my hand seemed so kind, so matter-of-fact, that it reassured me -surely they’d be more somber, less talkative if it were serious… Hope does not require much kindling to ignite.

But hope can also sustain you through the cold winter days while biopsies are being read, checked -and re-checked, to be certain any unexpected results are valid. I suppose the hope changes nothing, really -it just keeps you functioning until… well, until reality sets in. Until it’s no longer simply hope that you have to play with, but facts.

And my fact was a gift: the sheep had given me toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It can be acquired from kitty litter, but my case had been from the occasional mucking out of the floor in the barn where my sheep ate and slept.

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ Spero, ergo sum -I hope, therefore, I am- it seems…

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