At the beginning of October, I was invited to speak at the Living Beyond Breast Cancer conference in Memphis, Tennessee. Now, I had never been to such an event before, so I was delighted to participate and to learn more about this wonderful organization. There were knowledgeable speakers and informative events and it was a well-planned and well-organized weekend. But what impressed me the most had nothing to do with what was on the agenda (though it was impressive!). What impressed me most was how much love was in that space. How people who had never met before that weekend connected, supported each other, and extended so much love and generosity of spirit. How two (and many more) women who had never crossed paths, were referring to one another as “sister” and “friend”.
The thing is that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. I talk a lot to patients about this month and for many, it is a welcome celebration of their lives and experiences. For others, there is some confusion and even anger at how the pink everything doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They wonder where the proceeds go, and whether people really think about cancer patients as they are purchasing the yogurt with the pink lid, or whether they know how much suffering and challenge can exist in treatment and in survivorship.
If you are someone that understands and has made meaning of your cancer experience, you don’t struggle with this stuff. But many people do. And so to be in a room of people who see each other fundamentally and completely, who have not only walked through the fire, but who will sit in that very fire with someone they just met and rub their back and wipe their tears, is a truly powerful experience.
You may know that Memphis has good barbecue (I can attest to this!), and that it is the birthplace of rock and roll. It bursts with musical energy and history. It is also home of the blues. That gorgeous and complex music that reflects the human experience, for its longing and love and struggle and joy.
Todd Mauldin the musician and blues man was speaking about the blues as a genre and said this: “I’m a blues man. A blues man is a prisoner of hope. Hope wrestles with despair but it doesn’t generate optimism. It just generates this energy to be courageous, to bear witness, to see what the end is going to be. No guarantee, unfinished, open-ended. I’m a prisoner of hope. I’ll die full of hope.”
To me, this captures it. Often we look to jump to simple, concrete and evident connections within complex and unwieldy constructs. Hope and despair fit the bill here. It would be easier to say that despair is the opposite of hope and vice versa, but I don’t believe that is true. I believe that they “wrestle”, hold hands, and create unique and beautiful opportunities for us as we walk alongside our patients, friends, and fellow-humans who are living with and impacted by cancer. It is possible to be continuously hopeful, even in the face of suffering and despair.
Mr. Mauldin’s quote indicates that “Hope wrestles with despair but it doesn’t generate optimism.” So why isn’t hope the same thing as optimism? And should we even be hoping to be optimistic?
Rebecca Solnit, the feminist writer, thinker and philosopher who has written extensively on the topic of hope says this:
“Hopefulness is not optimism. That everything is going to be fine and we can just sit back. That’s too much like pessimism, which is that everything is going to suck and we can just sit back. Hope just means a Buddhist sense of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene. And that we have to let go of the certainty people seem to love more than hope, and know that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
So being optimistic is not the same thing as being hopeful. Optimism is passive. Inactive. Without connection to the uncertainty and complexity of a life experience like cancer.
Maria Popova writer of the excellent blog Brainpickings, says that hopelessness and optimism both lead to resignation. Because in each situation, we are shrugging our shoulders, giving up or blindly believing that everything will be better.
What is ultimately necessary, and I believe useful, is the cultivation of the space in-between. Where despair and hope co-exist, where they are active components filled with potential. Hope is thriving and alive and central to well being, but it is not optimism. And I’m ok with that.
I have the profound privilege to bear witness to many, many cancer stories. I have seen the support and love in a room filled with wisdom and experience and I can say that hope is always there, even if it is hiding. Being seen and heard and witnessed by another person is at the very heart of the human experience. For all of its simplicity, it blows my mind every time.
A special thanks to everyone who attended the conference in Memphis. Who showed up and opened their hearts and connected and supported and who held hope for their sisters and friends. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worthwhile, and I can never express enough how much it means to be even a tiny part of the story. Thank you.