Monday, June 23, 2014

The thing with feathers

In the world of breast cancer, hope is a sacred word. "Don't give up hope," women tell each other, even in the most hopeless circumstances. "Here's hoping," they say before a friend goes in for a mammogram. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul—and sings the tunes without the words—and never stops at all,” Emily Dickinson wrote (though not about breast cancer).

Hope is supposed to be a good thing. So I was startled the other day when a friend reported that a support-group leader had told her, "Hope is a waste of time."

I've mulled over what the support-group leader could have meant. And I think she may have meant one or more of a few things:

1. Hope implies that our own illness or someone else's is under our control, and that if we just hope enough we can sway the outcome. Like the blame-the-victim admonishment to "think positive," hope suggests that if we get sicker or die, it's our own fault for letting go of hope or failing to maintain optimism.

2. Hope is another name for fear, its inherent dark side. When we hope, we're really dreading whatever it is we hope won't happen. 

3. By focusing on a future outcome, hope takes you out of the here and now. And really, you can mostly bear what is in the present. It is the future that scares us silly. But if we ask ourselves, "Are we O.K. now? ... And now? ... And now? ..." the answer is affirmative. 

4. Hope is passive. If you really want something to happen, and it's under your control, you can take the actual steps to ensure it. Otherwise, it's just an empty word. And who needs empty words in times of crisis?

Ram Dass once said in an interview that a Tibetan Lama told him that the best place to stand is halfway between hope and hopelessness. Which is probably somewhere in the here and now.

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