Two thanatologists, Australian John and American David, are in conversation about end of life issues.
“Hope is not the answer everyone claims it to be,” John says in his colorful Aussie accent, “I have lost hope in hope—is there not a time for honest despair?”
“Hmmm . . .’A time for hope, a time for despair’, let me pencil that in the margins of the text in Ecclesiastes as a gloss, OK?”
“It should be there. Facing reality, no matter how hard, and giving up protective pretenses, is more what I see with my patients.”
“I think of hope as a verb or an adjective more than a noun—of hoping or being hopeful—as something inside us not a promise outside, as inner push more than outer pull.”
“Perhaps. I see that sometimes, but more often it is a final sense of contentment, a realization that all is well and all will be well.”
“Or facing and embracing what is.”
“You’re discarding false hopes, discovering true hope? False hopes must die before true hope is born, not so? Clinging to false hope blocks discovery of the hope beneath hope?”
“That is what I am questioning. I just came from an International Conference on Spirituality and Aging,” John says, “where the word ‘hope’ was bandied about like a cure-all, a panacea, a superficial salve, a balm for all ills. When I walk with people in the end stage of life, I more often experience not hope, but a peace, a readiness for death and an absence of fear.”
“A sense of deep comfort?”
“Yes, for some the comfort is harmony with their families, for others it is with God, for still others it is an acceptance that we live and we die.”
“Hope is too narrow a word to cover this sense of completion?”
“It does not describe this emotional readiness that comes. Nowhere in the literature I read does the emotional element get the attention it deserves. It is active coping not passive hoping.”
“The word ‘hope’ has become a ‘weasel word’, twisting one way or another, an empty word that people fill with many different meanings, or needs, or wishes, like the word ‘love’.”
“Yes, it is not that I am hopeless, but I don’t use it.”
I lift a questioning eyebrow. I’ve seen too much helplessness and hopelessness to not hold on to hope and the hope we hope against hope.
“Let’s try a few alternate words, It may be that the old word is so encumbered that we don’t find the sweet nut at the center? Let’s agree on what hope is not.”
“Not positive thinking.”
“Not sweet pious denial.”
“Not claiming special entitlement above all others.”
“Not narcissistic super confidence in spite of trouble.”
“So what’s left?”
“Well, all healthy development is grounded in basic trust that balances our mistrust.”
“You are quoting Erik Erikson again.”
“Yes, because he sees hope as the virtue that emerges when there is a balance between basic trust and mistrust—it is born from the bonding and bracing of the two sides.”
I’m scratching my head, he is rubbing his hands together. We are both quiet. I am remembering my daughter’s words—she is a professor in China—as she finds herself hosting visitors whose brief tourist honeymoon with the East wears off, they can’t go home immediately, they seem to see only things that remind them of home, they stare blankly, blindly at all the fascinating beauty around them as if it were not there.
“They lack curiosity,” Kate had said, “Curiosity is the quality of intelligent, intuitive, empathic seeing and responding—of being alive.”
“Curiosity,” I say to my Australian friend. “Perhaps that is the quality of interest, awareness, aliveness that keeps us moving forward? Curiosity is the essence of hope . . . “
“Curiosity just may be a key . . . an inquiring openness to the future. What a curious idea. I must explore it, think through how one invites or stimulates curiosity, even to the very end.”
“Perhaps for the truly curious, there is no end to curiosity?”
Some conversations do not really end. As John promised, it is still unreeling in his memory; as I am revealing here, it is ongoing for me. Curiosity has many forms—wonder, awe, desire to know, idle curiosity that searches with no goal, and “holy curiosity. It was Albert Einstein who instructed us, “Never lose a holy curiosity. An unholy curiosity has a blend of control, invasion of the other, it is a ‘closed’ question of deduction and judgment rather than an open question of wonder, awe, veneration and at times, worship.
I like the idea of a “holy curiosity.”
Einstein describes this quality beautifully: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. One to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead—her/his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion.”
Holy hopeful curiosity—curious holy hope, perhaps it is getting close to the essence of living?
With appreciation to Dr. John Cox, Sydney, Australia, for late night musings.