From an early age, most of us are taught that hope is a good thing. When things go wrong, we’re taught to hope for better things. We’re taught not to be discouraged, not to dwell on the negative — to hope that things will be better than anticipated. Is that good advice? Or are we setting ourselves up to be hurt by cruel reality?
I’m pondering that today because a doctor handed me some hope Friday, and I had trouble deciding whether it’s a good thing or not.
As I told you Monday, I’m scheduled for surgery on Jan. 30 to remove a growth in my breast. Just nine days ago, a doctor told me that I had cancer and would have to have all the tissue of my left breast removed. On Friday, he said that new biopsies have raised some hope that the “atypical” cells in the tumor aren’t really cancer after all.
“The pathology people are saying that they just see atypical cells,” the doctor said. “They’re not seeing gross, obvious cancer. It may all be good news.”
My heart leapt upon hearing his words. What might it mean? How would it change things? And, mostly, what was the likelihood that it wasn’t really cancer?
Unfortunately, the doctor doesn’t have good answers for me yet. The initial “fine needle aspiration” biopsy had given cells that made him conclude it was cancer. Much more extensive samples taken eight days ago had failed to confirm the diagnosis. It could be that the four or five samples he dug out of me with a “core biopsy gun” didn’t happen to hit the parts of the tumor with obvious cancer cells. Maybe. We don’t know yet.
What’s going to happen is that they’ll still cut me open, but they’ll first remove the mass. While I’m still knocked out, they’ll test the piece they remove. If there are obvious cancer cells, they’ll continue with the major surgery of removing all the breast tissue from half of my chest. If there’s not any obvious sign of it, they’ll sew me up and send me home. I won’t know until I wake up whether it was a major surgery and cancer or a minor surgery and a fairly benign mass.
So here’s the question. I had already come to terms with the worst-case reality. I was ready for what they tell me is major surgery and a definite possibility of cancer spreading. But now I’m told there’s a chance — not a certainty, but a chance — that nothing of the kind is going on.
Was I better off when I had accepted the worst? Or am I better now that I can hope that I’ll wake up in nine days and go home from much more minor surgery?
Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t be accused of being an optimist. He said, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” Is he right? Am I going to live with false hope and then be tormented when things turn out poorly?
Maybe it’s a matter of personality, but I suspect that Nietzsche was wrong. I suspect that loss of hope is what brings torment. I also suspect that loss of hope destroys any possibility of faith — and I believe faith is tremendously important. In our materialist world, we’re supposed to believe that everything is physical and that thoughts and beliefs don’t matter. I don’t believe that. I believe that our thoughts and beliefs matter a lot.
Over and over in the Gospels, Jesus told people that their faith had made them well. He never told anyone that He had zapped them with supernatural power. He said — over and over — that the people’s faith had healed them. What if He actually meant what He said? What if our faith really is that important?
In Mark 11:22-24, Jesus made one of the most remarkable statements in the Bible, but it’s one that we gloss over, as though we — even Christians — don’t believe He really meant it:
“And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (ESV)
So I’ll ask again, what if Jesus really meant what He said? What if it’s not just some nice, flowery metaphor? What if our faith really is that important? Does that change whether hope is important?
Whether you’re a Christian or not, plenty of non-religious people have recognized the value of hope, too. They’ve seen that it requires hope to take steps that can lead to better things. If we have no hope, we’re not going to take risks that might bring a better life. For instance, writer Leo Buscaglia said, “To love is to risk not being loved in return. To hope is to risk pain. To try is to risk failure, but risk must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life Is to risk nothing.”
For me right now, hope isn’t about risking things. I have absolutely no control over what happens after I’m knocked out in nine days. But I think it’s good for my mental health. I also think it affects the rest of the way I look at life.
I think we’re better people — and we live better lives — when we hope. I believe we’re resilient and can bounce back from failures instead of lying there wishing for death. I’m glad that I have hope. I think we’re all better off with it. Whatever obstacle stands in the way of your success and happiness, I hope you can find the hope and faith to believe that things will be better.
If we hope, I believe we can find the courage to discover a way to turn the object of our hope into reality.