‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.’
Hope is something I’ve tried my best not to entertain. When you can’t control your circumstances, or even your body, all you have left to control is how you respond to it. Hoping for better times that will never come is just stupid, and requires a level of self-delusion I refuse to sustain. I told myself it was better to be a realist and just accept things as they are. Live in the moment, enjoy the good stuff and just grit your teeth and get through the bad stuff.
The trouble is though, hope is insidious. It creeps in when you’re not looking. It pushes itself into the cracks between your thoughts, and that little gap between your head and your heart. It makes a place inside you without you even noticing until one day something happens, or doesn’t happen, and you feel your heart shatter in an unexpected way. And you realise you’ve lost the hope you never thought you had.
My life is characterised by small wins and big losses. The wins are small enough that it’s easy to miss them. I have to work hard to notice and to honour them. It’s easy not to notice that you’re getting dressed a few minutes earlier each day, or to notice and simply not value such a minute achievement. But I must, because these wins are proof of life for me – proof of some kind of forward momentum. Over time these tiny wins add up and life slowly, slowly, almost imperceptibly, starts to open up. And I begin to inch out as if across a newly frozen lake, testing the strength of the ice beneath me as I go, growing in confidence as I allow my weight to be taken by each new step. And I begin to live there, in that new place. I’m careful not to hope for more, but I gradually dare to believe that the ground I’ve gained may be mine to keep.
And without meaning to you have begun to hope. You’re hoping that this new normal will remain. And surely if you have gained this much, it’s not unreasonable to hope that there could be more gains – that you could inch just a little further. You still tell yourself that you are merely living in the moment and that you wouldn’t be so naive as to hope that this could last, you’ll just enjoy it as long as it does. Easy come, easy go, right? It would seem I’m more adept at self-delusion than I thought.
Because inevitably the day comes when the ice gives way and you go crashing through into the frigid water. You see the precious life you built fall apart and disappear, and you’ve no idea what will wash up with you and what will be lost forever. You flail around, desperately trying to find some solid ground to hold on to, but there is none because nothing is promised and nothing is sure. Even the place you wash up to after this isn’t yours. It could break at any moment too. And that’s when you realise that hope had made it’s way into your heart. The cruelty of it is you had no idea how big that hope had grown until it’s shattered and your heart bleeds with the loss of it and with the shards left in it that will ache forever.
This isn’t new, I’ve lived this many times over. But this time something is different. I think this time the hope had grown, it had invaded me to such a point that it had pushed it’s way through my unconscious and taken a new form. I really thought this time I could be getting better. That this wasn’t just a period of remission to be enjoyed, like a holiday, but that it could be for keeps. It seemed like such a small and harmless hope to entertain. After all, I wasn’t hoping for a cure or that I’d get better, it was just a hope for some improvement that didn’t disappear. It was a hope for enough health to sustain friendship, enough to be dressed and out of bed most days. It was a hope for some kind of life that wasn’t entirely taken up by just making it through each day. And it didn’t seem impossible. That ground beneath my feet felt so solid, so sure. It was based on scientific, medical reasoning. It was based on seeing my body respond positively, for the first time ever to changes that I made. I stopped eating wheat and I was less exhausted. I stopped eating sugar and I was in less pain. On and on I went, inching over the ice, one halting, shuffling step at a time hardly believing what was happening. Except that I did believe it. Hope had got to me and I was blind. Maybe if I’d been looking I’d have seen the tiny hairline fractures beginning, maybe if I’d been listening I’d have heard the distant rumbling of ice groaning and beginning to give way. But I saw and heard nothing, hope had made it’s home in me and I didn’t stand a chance.
Now here I am, heart sick and struggling for breath. I feel like after more than 2 decades of mourning losses, this has finally broken me. I look at the mountain I have to climb each day and I know I just can’t. I can’t tell myself all I need to do is get through today because tomorrow will be just the same. On and on it will go, relentless and insurmountable. I want to keep climbing, I want to keep living – I actually love my life! I want to find a way of climbing that mountain day after day, even if it never gets any smaller, even if it gets bigger with every passing day. I simply don’t know how. I look at the task ahead and I look at the resources I have and it simply doesn’t add up. I know there must be a way, but I can’t see it, it seems impossible.
Denying hope is clearly not possible, and trying to has not served me well. I’m beginning to think that to hope is inherently human, something we can’t avoid. Something we shouldn’t avoid. That it’s something vital to life. And yet in a very real way, my situation is hopeless. The reality is that, aside from a direct divine intervention, I am extremely unlikely to ever get better. I am very likely to get worse, at the very least age will weaken me, but most likely this condition is progressive. So what do I do with a human heart, unable to stop hoping but trapped in a hopeless situation? If I set my hope on the wrong thing – on the unlikely, the impossible thing – it will kill me. I cannot live forever with hope deferred. So what do I set my hope on? What longing can actually lead me to a tree of life? And how do I climb an impossible mountain, day after day when I know I can’t conquer, when I know that getting over today’s mountain means tomorrows will be harder, higher, onwards and onwards until one day I won’t make it over. How do I live hopefully in a hopeless situation?
This is my conundrum. This is the unanswerable question I must grapple with. I can’t ignore it any longer. I may never find any answers, but maybe wrestling with it is how I keep on climbing day after day. Maybe wrestling with the reality of this hopelessness will lead me to finding a hope that will be fulfilled, that will be life and not death to me.
So here I am hoping again. Hoping for a hope that I can live on, knowing it may cost me everything, but hoping it will lead me to life and joy in spite of the hopelessness and in spite of the loss. And maybe, just maybe, because of it.