This morning as I sat here watching pieces of my house blow away amid near-hurricane force gusts, hoping the winds would be merciful, I read something that stopped me in my tracks.
Understand that over the years since 2003, when I signed to write SHAM, I've read probably millions of words about hope, PMA, the will to win, etc. I've read them from top gurus, I've heard them on Oprah, I've seen them codified in "formal" programs-for-daily-living like those posed in The Secret or Your Best Life Now. I've also expended hundreds of thousands of words, counting the book and the blog and the radio/TV I've done, trying to debunk the curious notion that hope is its own reward.*
Which brings us to this morning, and a line from an obituary I read in my local paper, the Morning Call. The line consisted of 15 words. And I realized that those 15 words said it all. The words are as follows:
Although she lost the fight against cancer, she never lost hope that she could win.Little that I've read so perfectly embodies the absurdity and fundamental silliness of today's Culture of Hope. I ask you: What do those 15 words even mean?
For the record, technically, here is how the line should have read:
Although she hoped she could win the fight against cancer, she died anyway.Yes, I realize that no one would actually write that, least of all in an obituary. Obits exist for the living, who are supposed to draw comfort from them. So let's talk about that. How much comfort can "those who live on" find in a hollow line that, if you think about it, depreciates the value of hope and, some could argue, makes a mockery of everything that genuine human striving is about? Yes, she's dead, poor soul...but don't worry, she never lost hope! As if that would've been the bigger tragedy than death itself.
Personally, I would never want anyone to write that about me. I would not want people remembering an image of me with my head in the clouds (or sand), talking excitedly about my plans to attend this year's World Series, when they knew I was living on borrowed time as it is. I've already written about the way we deceived my father—flat-out lied to the man about his prognosis; I've written about how my sisters and I sat there exchanging uncomfortable glances as Dad spoke about what he wanted to do "when I come home." He wasn't coming home, and he, of all people, was the only one who didn't know it. And I'll tell you something else: Had he known, he wouldn't have been in that hospital in the first place. Dad always had stuff to do. Always. If he'd had any say in it, he wouldn't have chosen to spend his final days and weeks in a cancer ward, connected to plastic tubing, talking foolishly about baseballs he and his son would never get to throw to each other.
Getting back to the obit, I could see if they said she never lost her spirit, her joie de vivre. I could see if they said she smiled to the very end. (She is a pretty woman with an inviting smile, a smile that suggests you'd like her if you knew her. There's a pic with the obit.) I could even see, maybe, if they left out the part about how she still thought she "could win"—if they stopped the quote at hope. I just can't see wording it as they did.
You say I'm "overthinking it"? No. I'm just thinking it. Because this isn't an isolated case. Even if this was a mere instance of careless wording, the implications are far-reaching.
Don't get me wrong. Hope is good. I like hope; I use a lot of it myself. But there's difference between hope and hallucination. And when we pretend that hope itself is the be-all-and-end-all of living—even if we're pretending "for a good cause"—we devalue and disincentivize the activities, attitudes and behaviors that are more likely to result in the good things we want to happen.
Hope didn't prevent Oprah from getting fat again. Hope didn't prevent this pretty young woman with a sweet-looking smile from dying. Hope won't keep pieces of my house from continuing to disappear into the evening skies. Hope, in most cases and settings, is just hope, as wispy and fragile as whatever is (or isn't) holding the remaining shingles to my roof. Nothing more and nothing less.
* There are some purely emotional realms where this may be true. But that is a very different scenario from the way hope is now packaged for mainstream consumptions.