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.)