strength courape hope (1)I had a conversation with a church leader just before Christmas. He asked if my surgery had been successful; was I now cancer-free? I said yes, hopefully. He didn’t like that. ‘No, be positive! You can do it!’ As if all that stands between me and a long and healthy future is my attitude of mind. As if being honest about doubts and fears will multiply those things until that is all there is. As if it will be my fault somehow if it comes back. I don’t subscribe to that point of view.

Anyone who has treatment for cancer lives with the knowledge that it might return. I know the general stats for survival and I’ve been asking all along how much difference treatments will make to my individual prognosis. But even if I was given an accurate probability of whether I will be alive in 10 or 20 years time, I still don’t know which side of the percentage I will end up on – in the nice big majority or on the smaller but deadlier side. And so living hopefully seems to me to be the best way to be.

In her book, Men explain things to me, Rebecca Solnit has an essay about the possibility of bringing about change, of people and movements shaping history, of how living with uncertainty and doubt can open up new possibilities. She quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘The future is dark which is the best thing the future can be, I think.‘ And she then goes on to say:

To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and unimaginable transpire quite regularly… Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans.’ 

Although she’s writing about a different context, her words resonate with me. To be hopeful is to be expectant, to want the best outcome, while also living with the reality that anything could happen. Hope lives in that space between despair and optimism, and looks for what is emerging. I will do what I can to live well and to live healthily but I can’t control what happens next. And that is quite liberating; it’s not down to me. I’ll keep my hope, thank you very much. I choose to live hopefully.


(Photo from Bethlehem 2013. The Palestinian people I’ve met are the embodiment of living hopefully.)

6 thoughts on “Living hopefully

  1. I’ve found as I get older, and the certainty of death is less easy to ignore, I’m living in a completely different space – not quite ‘one day at a time’, but weighing things up in terms of what is worthwhile and valuable rather than anything longer term such as career or reputation. I even decide whether to finish reading or watching things I’m not enjoying very much on that basis now!

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: All You Need Is Love? | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  3. Jenny, as always, thank you for your writing. I am older than you but have never had cancer. I view you as a kind of intrepid explorer, machete in hand, working your way through territory that we know exists, need to know about but don’t personally want to visit. Your reports back really are appreciated.
    I loved your reflection on the uncertainty of our time left to live. I worked out long ago that the clichéd encouragement to ‘live everyday as if it was your last’ was just that – clichéd nonsense. So many things we do, studying, making new friends, taking up an interest or learning a skill are actually predicated on the assumption that we have enough time left to see the fruit of our labour – we simply can’t live everyday as if it was our last. Equally, we can’t live as if we will live forever and in between these two truths lies that need for infinite wisdom in how we do live. I was recently reading an extract from an essay by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi (author of ‘When breath becomes air’) reflecting on his feelings on mortality and the changing meaning of time following his cancer diagnosis, ‘The path forwards would seem obvious if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d just spend time with my family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write that book). Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: what was I supposed to do with that day?’
    Two weeks ago, a friend of a friend (someone I didn’t know at all), was killed in a motorcycle accident in the United States. The truth is that life is always fragile and sometime shorter than it should be. I’m not sure if that is a curse or a gift. A sense of urgency to make the most of each day is certainly a gift – for me that might mean making the effort to drive 15 minutes to the coast to run with my dog rather than plodding round the fields and tracks behind the house. Who knows, for a million reasons one day I may not be able to. That is not a burden though, it is (I believe) an invitation to try and balance living for the moment with the audacious trust that I might just live long enough to see a return on the more mundane acts of ‘investment’ that I make today that won’t see fruit for some time.

  4. I meant to say – I thought to begin with that the picture was the Berlin wall – a fragment of which I have on my desk! My eldest daughter is off next weekend to Palestine – working with EAPPI monitoring human rights. I’ still wondering about the marathon…

  5. “And that is quite liberating; it’s not down to me. I’ll keep my hope, thank you very much. I choose to live hopefully.”
    Cancer for me was life-changing. In an odd way, it gave me more peace than I have ever had. My life is not my own. My days are not my own. I will live as healthily as I can bear (I was never healthy with diet or exercise before) and leave the length of my days to God.

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