Hope Kept Me Eating

According to Hesiod’s version of an ancient Greek legend, now that Pandora has opened a jar stuffed full of evils by the Olympian gods, “countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils, and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them.” Curiously that jar was closed before hope was also allowed to escape.

The moral of the legend is ambiguous. Is it an expression of how bleak the human condition is? There is no hope. But if we could somehow re-open the jar, at least we would have some hope. Or is the idea instead that hope is also an evil like disease and accessing it will bring us even further torment? Nietzsche took the latter interpretation. Hope is among the greatest of evils because it prolongs our torment. That’s a view that seems curiously close to a kind of Stoicism. Better to focus on the here and now, that which we might control, than to project into the future, which is far beyond our control.

In my diagnosis of magical thinking I worried that in desperation patients often embrace false hopes. We often fix on alternatives to conventional medicine and in doing so forego the more reliable path to a cure, to a longer life, or to palliative relief. When we do that it seems as if hope is not our friend. In those instances hope becomes a servant of disease.

It does seem that there is a danger in hoping. Even the great philosopher of hope, Ernst Bloch, claimed that “there is no hope without anxiety.” As a Stoic might claim, when we project ourselves into the future, we open ourselves up to anxiety just as much as to hope. If we are concerned to prevent anxiety, maybe it would be better to redirect our attention to the present and foreclose both anxiety and hope. Make no mistake about it; Nietzsche’s counsel is not one of despair. On the contrary, he believes that we can only fully affirm the present by foregoing hope.

But could anyone ever really do that? Could a patient so fully live in the present as to have neither anxiety nor hope? Bloch, at least, was doubtful. He asserted that forward-looking projection is fundamental to the kind of minds we have. Like a lighthouse we are constantly seeking to illuminate our future, and only because of that is progress is possible.

Just try to imagine a world without hope. All criticism of the present would be left without a strategy, and it could easily fall victim to cynicism. Imagine if the abolitionists had had no hope. Martin Luther King, Jr was fond of quoting the abolitionist, Rev. Theodore Parker, who during the height of the transatlantic slave trade dared to say: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Could Martin Luther King Jr. have been the strategic leader of the Civil Rights Movement without hope? Could Nelson Mandela have directed the African National Congress from a prison cell without hope? Hope is a powerful aid to action. It can play a service role by impelling us to act when our motivation may be weakening.

At two different points while I was in the hospital hope kept me eating. One of the side-effects of the kind of chemotherapy that was administered to me was to shut down of the production of saliva in my mouth as well as the mucus throughout my digestive track. My mouth was as dry as the great Mojave Desert. Eating became a chore. I would be given a roll at breakfast and when I took a bite and began chewing, I might as well have been sucking on sand. I was miserable and had nothing but aversion to food. The only thing keeping me going was the hope of getting stronger. If I were to weaken myself by insufficient intake of calories I would delay my recovery. So, I ate.

Later I contracted a gastro-intestinal infection and I was plagued by severe diarrhea. I was losing weight. My appetite was also on the wane because the chemotherapy had inflicted heavy damage on my taste buds. Most foods did not taste good (many still don’t) and some were positively revolting. The nurses would occasionally warn that if I were to lose much more weight I would have to be put on nutritional IV at night. I had to eat much more at each meal than felt comfortable. It was unpleasant both because it was so much food and because none of it tasted very good. Even today when I imagine the possibility of having to return to the hospital, what I find most repellant is the food. But at the time the hope of renewed strength kept me eating.

Another thing that the political struggles I cite demonstrate is that we don't typically hope alone. A community of hope supports every person hoping. The leaders are buoyed by the inspiring sacrifices of the members, and the members are carried along by the fierce commitment and rhetorical elegance of the leaders. And my efforts of personal hope were supported by the love of family and friends, many of whom offered inspiring comments to this blog.

Hope is a virtue for tough times. Well-placed hope can serve us well in the effort to transform our circumstances, in the effort to fix what needs mending. And from illness in our bodies to the injustices in our institutions there is no shortage of that. But in motivating us to change our condition, hope can also change us. Hope plays not only a service role in helping us to achieve our ends. Hope can transform us by increasing our capacity to act in the service of our aims. Sometimes those aims, as in the case of the abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the anti-apartheid movement, are to secure human dignity. By enhancing our capacity to be agents of dignity, hope gives expression to our own dignity. Hope also then has a dignity-expressing function.

I am not claiming that I left the hospital a more dignified person. The kind of dignity that I am talking about is not measured along a scale like weight or wealth. It is possessed equally by everyone. And although hope allowed me to express a certain determination to be healthy again, it was my own survival at stake, not the protection of the dignity of others. I’m no hero. Hope in the hospital is different in that way from hope in streets. Nonetheless, in both cases it gives expression to something that we admire in people. And our lives would be far poorer if we were to have to live without it.

Sunshine, Suffering, Re-birth, and Freedom

The Merchants of Magical Thinking