Hope Demands Things That Despair Does Not

In her essay “False Hope and Easy Despair,” historian and author Rebecca Solnit speaks to how hope requires action. “Hope” she quotes author Ernst Bloch, “is in love with success rather than failure.”

That seems obvious, but Solnit drives home her point by noting that failure and marginalization are safe. Despair has many causes and varieties.  Denying one’s power and possibility allows us to “shake off” our sense of obligation. We can make our point too easily when the point becomes “the demonstration of one’s own virtue rather than the realization of results.”

On the other hand,

“Hopefulness is risky, since it is after all a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible, even in discontinuity.  To be hopeful is to take on a different persona, one that risks disappointment, betrayal…”

Dayspring Retreat Center

Looking through the mist at Lake of the Saints (Photo credit: Dayspring Retreat Center)

I have spent recent weeks studying strategic plans, business models, trends in nonprofit organizations, and other materials that look backward to history to make sense of what’s ahead. They begin by looking backward because, as I’ve said earlier, hope is grounded in memory.  I’ve written my self-assessment as part of our performance review process at work and prepared my personal strategic plan.  In every instance, the best of these documents are built on a hope that demands something of those who would implement them.  As the title of this email suggests, “Hope demands things that despair does not.”

Let’s look to a hope that is in love with success.

Have a good week.

More to come…


The Priorities in Life

WHen Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I have read two books recently where I could simply and honestly say, “You should read this.”  The second of the two, which I finished reading Saturday morning, seemed to be the appropriate one where I should sit down and capture my thoughts immediately.

When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi has been on the New York Times Bestseller list and was a top book of 2016 on many lists.  There’s a reason.  This is a book where, as the Times reviewer noted, “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.”

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer who – at age 36 and near the end of residency training at Stanford – was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  This memoir is his look at confronting death with all the knowledge of a top-trained doctor and all the uncertainty of a human being who imagined a whole life of promise in front of him.

Kalanithi studied English literature, human biology and philosophy before turning to a decade of medical school training.  A classic seeker and striver, he was asking the essential questions of life and death while reading literature, seeking answers in words. Then he turned to the real time grappling with life and death that doctors face every day.

The first half of the book explains how he reached that point, of how he fought the idea of becoming a doctor because of his cardiologist father’s absences from his family while Paul was growing up.  Paul’s search was for “what makes life meaningful?”  He eventually turns to the medical profession, which would “allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”

At the end of this section entitled “In Perfect Health I Begin,” Kalanithi writes about the suicide of a fellow resident, after a difficult complication in a surgery he is performing.  It is an agonizing segue to the book’s second part, “Cease Not Until Death.”

“Most lives are lived with passivity toward death—it’s something that happens to you and those around you.  But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob and the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life.  We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility.  Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins.  Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t.  The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients.  You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

Where the book’s first half looks unflinchingly at the challenges of being a neurosurgeon, Part II takes an equally direct look at facing death.  Especially facing death at a time where one’s whole life and promise is still assumed to lie ahead.

There are many brave and wise souls who show up in Kalanithi’s inevitable march.  Chief among them is his lung cancer oncologist, Emma Hayward.  As the doctor overseeing Kalanithi’s treatment, she shows up throughout the story.  But to Kalanithi, her gentle but persistent questions about what really mattered to him and his family, knowing that would change on a regular basis as they faced death, was key.  In a 2014 interview for a Stanford Medical Journal, Kalanithi explained this important aspect of the work of the oncologist:

“Patients are bombarded with well-meaning advice, from dietary recommendations to holistic therapy to cutting-edge research. It can easily occupy all a patient’s time, when you ought to also spend time thinking about the priorities in your life (emphasis mine). Physicians can also advise patients, as my dad would insist, that they can stop skipping dessert.”

In his beautiful yet straightforward prose, Kalanithi writes about hope in light of medical statistics, and he notes that “It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.”

There are many elements of the story of Paul and his wife Lucy’s journey worth mentioning.  Especially touching is their decision to have a child, who is born eight months before Paul dies.  The book is dedicated to Cady – that child – and Kalanithi’s last paragraph is focused on her life and the meaning of her existence.  The epilogue, written by Lucy after Paul’s death, is also heart rendering.  I made sure not to read that on the train, as I knew – accurately – that my eyes would well up with tears that I couldn’t control.

But there is one final segment I want to highlight:  Paul’s faith.  He talks in a straightforward way about his time of doubt, but well before his diagnosis he had returned to his roots in faith.

Paul Kalanithi wrote that although he spent much of his 20s believing in a “material conception of reality” and a “scientific worldview that would grant complete metaphysics” except for “outmoded concepts like souls, God and bearded white men,” he found a problem.

“The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning — to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.”

“That is not to say that if you believe in meaning you must also believe in God,” he added. “It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge.”

This is a wonderful book.  But Kalanithi would not expect us to find all the answers here. Just like Emma, his voice comes through this book, saying, “You have to figure out what’s most important to you.”

“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture.  The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl driver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth.  Human knowledge is never contained in one person.  It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

Just read it.

More to come…


Hope is Grounded in Memory

Mary Dixie and George Brown

Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown – my grandparents and part of the memory that gives me hope

Last Saturday marked my 20th anniversary at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about hope in the context of life’s milestones.  Not a greeting card kind of hope or optimism, but “hope that’s kind of gritty…the kind,” as described by songwriter and author Carrie Newcomer, “that gets up every morning and chooses to try to make the world just a little kinder (or better) in your own way.”

The thought that “hope is grounded in memory” has influenced the work of  another writer I admire, Rebecca Solnit. In a recent interview, she notes that “We think of hope as looking forward, but…(if) you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, ‘people have the power’….(P)eople have often taken on things that seemed hopeless — freeing the slaves, getting women the vote — and achieved those things.”  Knowing history gives me hope.

To be fair, hope is hard.  Cynicism – where I have gone on occasion – is easy. But in thinking about 20 years of work at the National Trust, sharing experiences and losses and triumphs with some incredible colleagues, I have a hope that comes from our past and looks expectantly to the future.  When the individuals came together 50 years ago to propose what became the National Historic Preservation Act, they were working against the very powerful forces of urban renewal.  Forces that wanted to erase community, who said that the past didn’t matter. Now 50 years later, thousands of communities, in various ways, recognize the people who came before, and why their lives and work and places matter today and for the future. In thinking about where preservation goes in the next 50 years, we are facing different but equally powerful forces that again want to erase what came before. But my hope for the future comes from seeing what’s happened in the past 20, the past 50, the past 100 years.

I like the idea of hope being grounded in memory.  Hope as a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things – powerful things – can happen.

But hope doesn’t always have to be grand work and gestures.  It is a choice.  A practice.  To illustrate, let me end with a story.

I have a clock in my living room that is part of my earliest memories from childhood.  The clock sat on the mantle in a bedroom in my grandparents’ home in Franklin, Tennessee, and when I visited I slept in that room.  The first night I was frequently awakened by the ticking of the clock and the ringing of the chimes.  Soon, however, they became comforting sounds that only registered in my subconscious.  We’ve had the clock in our house now for more than a decade and it continues to provide accurate time and comforting rhythms to our lives.

I hadn’t thought much about my routine of winding the clock by hand each week until I recently read several thoughts from E.B. White about hope.  White – the author of wonderful books for children such as Charlotte’s Web and countless New Yorker essays – knows that hope alone will not carry us forward. (Or as many consultants say, “Hope is not a strategy.”) We have to act as well.  So White will “Get up on Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”

As I reflect on this, winding my grandparents’ clock is a way of looking ahead expectantly.  When I turn those cranks, I am reminding myself – through the memories of all my parents and grandparents accomplished – that there is another week ahead to do the good work we are asked to do.  Or, as my grandmother would say, “To make yourself useful as well as ornamental.”

We live in a surprising world – which should give us hope.  So follow E.B. White’s advice:  “Hang onto your hat. Hang onto your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

Grandmother's clock

A small symbol of hope

More to come…