(This is part of my ongoing series, ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
It is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, according to Emily Dickinson. Nietzsche said it is the worst of all evils. And on my dark days, I think it’s stupid (though not really). In a hospital, hope can make the difference, if not between life and death, then certainly between life and mere survival. Dum spiro, spero. “While I breathe, I hope.” Even when the people I meet in the hospital are fighting for each breath, or when they are hoping that the next breath will be their last, I watch them wrestle with what it means to hope.
“What are you hoping for now?” is one of the questions I often ask patients or their families. Some of them have a quick response.
“We hope the chemo works.”
“I hope I can sleep comfortably tonight.”
“I hope to get out of the hospital this week.”
“We hope this surgery will be the last.”
“We hope she won’t be in any pain at the end.”
Others will say, “That’s a good question, Chaplain.” They have to think about it for a moment before answering.
“I hope my children will have good memories of me.”
“We hope he knows how much he’s loved.”
“I hope there’s some meaning to everything we’ve been through.”
“I hope I can be forgiven.”
“We hope God will give us the strength we need for this.”
“Is there any reason to hope anymore?”
Hope is not wishful thinking, in my opinion. Neither is it certainty of the future. It is something in between the two. Through my ministry as a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen evidence over and over again that there is no such thing as a hopeless case. At times, I go into a room expecting just that, and the patient, family members, and friends gathered there tell me about their sources of hope. I listen and learn from them. Other times, they need me to reassure them of the hope that I can see as someone more removed from their situation. It may be “unrealistic” to hope that their loved one will get better, but they may need to for a while. It may seem morbid to hope for an “easy” death, but that too is a real and sometimes necessary hope. Of course, both of those hopes may go unrealized. The patient may get worse, not better, and her death may be slow and agonizing for both her and her family. What becomes of hope then?
I don’t believe that it was wasted or foolish. Even hoping for things that do not ultimately come to pass can sustain us through difficult times, allowing us space to gain the strength necessary to face the outcome we fear. And no matter what happens, I believe there are a few things we can hope for that are certain, even if they don’t feel that way. My faith tells me that I can hope for redemption, for forgiveness, for love, for the presence of God in any and all cases. It may not be evident, but it’s what I choose to believe, based on the promises of scripture, the testimony of generations of believers who have gone before me, the experiences of my own faith journey so far, and maybe even a little wishful thinking.
Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite writers, would say that I don’t give enough credit to wishful thinking. In his book of the same name, subtitled A Seeker’s ABC, he directs those who look under H for Hope to turn also to W for Wishful Thinking. There, he writes, “Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.” The truth I tell my patients, whether through my words or actions, is that they are loved, forgiven, redeemed, not alone. There’s plenty to hope for in that.