Monday, October 17, 2005

Hope: a 49th birthday reassessment

As a teen-ager I got a lot of my wisdom from the movies, and so I never considered the possibility that Hope might not be good. The movie world of my youth had two kinds of people: Those who give up and fail, and those who keep trying until they succeed. As the ballplayers sang in Damn Yankees:

You’ve gotta have hope
Mustn’t sit around and mope
Nothin’s half as bad as it may appear
Wait’ll next year and hope

All teens ought to think this way, because their powers are growing. If you can’t do something now, wait until you’re stronger, wiser, richer, and better connected, then try again. Hope keeps making sense through your twenties and maybe even into your thirties. Haven’t met the right girl yet? Think you deserve a better job? Can’t afford your dream house? Wait and try again.

I turn 49 today. I’m not ready for the old folks' home yet, but many of my powers have been shrinking for some while. I still jog, for example, but not without my medical insurance card. I get injured more easily and heal more slowly. My thinning hair seems to be planning to skip gray entirely and go straight for white. More and more often I look at my latest vacation pictures and think: “Who is that old guy?” A few years ago I didn’t hit on sexy young women because I was a virtuous husband. Now, although I’m as married and (I suppose) as virtuous as ever, I’m mostly just afraid they’d be horrified.

Supposedly we older folks make up for our physical shortcomings with smarts, but I wonder. I can already see other people my age becoming less flexible mentally – more opinionated, more set in their ways, less likely to say “What the hell?” and do something new. Maybe it’s happening to me too. How would I know?

Midlife is a time of reassessment. And nothing, I think, needs reassessing quite so much as Hope. Should a middle-aged guy hope? How? And for what?

Feeding the Fire of Karma
Life-threatening illness is the #1 situation in which you're supposed to hang onto Hope. At least in the movie world. In the real world the last dozen years have given me a lot of opportunities to reconsider.

It started when my mother-in-law was dying of breast cancer. Less than a year after the initial diagnosis and surgery, the cancer was back and had spread to her lungs and liver. My wife Deb looked up the statistics and started preparing for the worst. But her younger sister Melissa kept hoping, and took any positive sign as evidence that everything was going to be OK. Everything was not OK; a few months after the recurrence my mother-in-law was dead.

Hospital vigils are emotionally intense, but things happen slowly. I had a lot of time to observe and think. Melissa’s hopefulness, I came to see, caused her a lot of pain. Watching her, I understood for the first time what the Buddhists meant by the Wheel of Karma: The effort to escape suffering comes around to cause more suffering. We suffer because we lose our loyalty to The-World-That-Is and instead pay homage to The-World-I-Want. A hopeful fantasy that does not come true just increases the gap between those two worlds. It hides pain the way that a pile of dry leaves hides a bonfire.

Hope turns bad, in other words, when it teams up with Imagination and gets too specific. If it commits you to a future that may not happen, you can find yourself in an argument with God.

You never win those arguments.

Death as an Instructor
A few years later it was Deb who had breast cancer. It began with some specks on a mammogram, and for about a month afterward each new test showed that things were worse than the previous test had indicated. Eventually surgery was called for. The surgeon was optimistic that the cancer was contained, but the pathologist unexpectedly found several malignant lymph nodes. As we waited for the results of the bone scan, I knew that one more bad result would almost guarantee a swift decline and a painful death.

Fortunately, that was where the streak stopped: Her bones were clean. So were the lungs and the liver. We went through nine months of grueling treatment followed by a long tail of anxiety, but nine years have passed and we haven’t seen the breast cancer again.

During those months of treatment I did not put energy into hoping for specific events – maybe because of what I had learned by watching Melissa. The only possible future I thought about was Deb dying, because that was the future that needed work. If she lived we would deal with whatever came up, but if she died I needed to figure out how my life could go on. Eventually I developed confidence that I would get through it, and then both of us mostly stopped thinking about the future at all.

But living in the present, we found, has its own challenges. When we missed our favorite annual folk festival, we couldn’t comfort ourselves by saying “We’ll catch it next year.” Because (unlike the ballplayers of Damn Yankees) we weren’t sure there’d be a next year. When our friends talked about things we might all do in the distant future, we smiled and humored them the way we’d humor children talking about growing up to be Indian chiefs. We lived, not with a sense of Doom, but in the presence of a Great Unknown that had to be respected. Very slowly, the future came back to us. We started talking three months ahead, then six months, then a year.

When Deb was diagnosed with a different and even scarier cancer in 2003, we treated it much the same way. It was our second trip to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and we knew the landscape pretty well – well enough to recognize that the psalmist had it right: He didn’t deny that Evil was there, he just pledged not to fear it. The Valley, we knew, is a place of breath-taking vistas. But you have to remember to look up.

Even though I did not cling to any specific hope, my deepest dread was finding out that there was no hope at all. I feared (and still fear) knowing with certainty that it is all downhill from here. So far, that has not happened. Our miracle drug (Gleevec) remains miraculous. The situation continues to be hopeful.

Active Hope and Passive Hope
These events have taught me something unexpected about myself: I have no curiosity for knowledge I can’t handle.

For example, Deb and I are both fairly good amateur Tarot readers. (I can rationalize fortune-telling in terms of unconscious processes and knowledge you don’t know you have, but this is not the place.) In nine years, however, neither of us has done a reading about her health. All along I have had a gut feeling that it would be wrong, and I haven’t really understood why until now: I believe in active fortune-telling, not passive fortune-telling. I’ll ask for insight that affects my actions, but not for information about what’s going to happen beyond my control. If I can’t do anything about it, I don’t need to know.

In the same way, I find that I only believe in active Hope, not passive Hope. It’s good – even essential, I think – to have a vague and general belief that effort is worthwhile, that trying to improve life is a worthy endeavor. But Hope turns bad in a second way when it becomes passive. Rather than getting motivated to do things, you just hope that good things will happen to you on their own.

They usually don't.

Hoping and Not Hoping
It’s been interesting to watch myself apply these lessons even before I had fully formulated them. Strangely, I’ve found that my new-found pessimism has an unexpected upside: I don’t procrastinate as much. If things are only getting harder, why put stuff off? In the last few years I’ve learned to rollerblade, joined a writers’ group, started this blog, and finally made it to Rome. Maybe youthful Hope had been holding me back, not pushing me forward.

This spring and summer, I found myself dealing with promising situations rather than dire ones -- in particular, the overall encouragement I’ve been getting from people who read my writing. At the end of winter, for example, I had lunch with two editors of UU World. They had read the Red Family, Blue Family article on my web site and liked it. They outlined a plan that was more than I had imagined: Immediately I would carve a book review out of Red Family; later I’d do a cover article for them; and down the road maybe I’d have some kind of continuing relationship with the online version of their magazine.

I put (and am still putting) almost no effort into hoping that this scenario would play out. I told very few people about anything that hadn’t already happened – the book review appeared in the May/June issue and the cover article in the new Fall issue – because I knew they would encourage me to hope. Instead, I’ve just done what the scenario required without visualizing where it might go: I’ve been writing, not hoping.

But while I’m avoiding any specific or passive hope, I have a lot of hope of the generic, active kind. More and more often, I decide that it’s worth trying to do things. I can’t guess what will happen, but I’m increasingly inclined to throw my effort out there and find out.

So I guess I’ll give the ballplayers of Damn Yankees a C. They got one thing right: You can’t just sit around and mope. But you also can’t reach middle age without realizing that some things really are as bad as they appear. And by your late 40’s “Wait’ll next year” is a very bad strategy. Maybe a middle-aged guy does better to forget the movies and take his advice from the I Ching: “perseverance furthers.”

The UU-FAQ VI: Death

Do UU’s believe in an afterlife?

Some do and some don’t. Many (probably most) believe that the living cannot know for sure whether or not the dead survive in some way. And, if the dead do live on, it is even more doubtful how behavior in this life affects a person’s afterlife. Consequently, even though individual UU’s may believe in Heaven and/or Hell, in reincarnation, in spiritualism, or some other version of a conscious afterlife, UU's hardly ever use posthumous reward or punishment to motivate behavior in this life.

A UU funeral must be a very sad event, if the mourners have no common vision of an afterlife.

Most mourning has little to do with theology. Even if you believe that your loved one is sitting at the right hand of God now, you’re still going to miss having him or her around. And if the death was painful or premature or unusually tragic, the community still has to work through its shock and loss.

Religion sometimes gets in the way of the grieving process. A dogmatic religion may care more about rationalizing difficult points of its theology than helping survivors come to terms with their loss. (What parent, for example, is really comforted by the thought that their child’s death was God’s will?) The death of a loved one can lead people to doubt their faith, so a religion that equates doubt with sin increases rather than eases their burden. And if the image of a loved one in Heaven is comforting, the possibility that he or she may be in Hell is anything but.

A bereaved UU can benefit from our lack of theological baggage. A typical UU funeral celebrates the life that has ended. People are free to be happy or sad as the spirit moves them, and to do or say or visualize whatever will help them find peace and continue on the journey of their own lives.

In short, a UU funeral is no sadder than any other kind of funeral, and may be less so.

Are UU’s afraid of death?

In the face of death, UU’s demonstrate the full human range of fear and courage, just as the members of any other religion do.

What does Unitarian Universalism have to say to someone who is afraid of dying?

Since death is both natural and inevitable, those who die have not been picked out for misfortune. A debilitating fear of death, however, is not inevitable. Many people arrive at a state from which they can accept death without horror and live in its shadow without fear.

They do this in one of two ways. The popular culture provides a clear image of the first way: The dying person is at an advanced age and largely without pain, surrounded by loved ones. Quarrels are resolved, good-byes are said, and the positive legacy of the person’s good works are apparent to all.

Obviously, this picture depends on many factors beyond an individual’s control. Anyone, no matter how careful or healthy, may die prematurely or painfully. Loved ones may already be dead themselves, or they may refuse to cooperate with our good-death scenario. And no matter how hard we try, the goals we set for ourselves in life may not be achieved. We may reach death believing that we leave behind a mess for others to clean up rather than a bounty for them to enjoy.

But there is another way to die well: You can approach death with compassion, both for yourself and for others. On this path, the end of life is a time for cancelling debts and letting people off the hook – yourself not the least. High standards and harsh judgments may have served an important purpose during your life (to push yourself to improve, for example, or to discourage others from treating you badly). But these purposes become less and less relevant as death approaches. Those who have wronged you in the past will not do so after you are dead, and your own failings and bad habits will die with you. So what is the point of continuing to punish yourself or others? Why not, at long last, open yourself to acceptance and love?

This second path to a good death is open to everyone. It doesn’t require that your disease proceed in a particular way or that your friends and family follow your script. But a lifetime of hard-hearted condemnation can difficult to reverse, especially if you try to begin practicing compassion on your deathbed. If, on the other hand, you have spent your life asserting the inherent worth and dignity of all people (including yourself), and championing justice, equity and compassion in human relationships, then the second path is much easier. If you have been on a free and responsible search for truth during your life, death will not hit you with the added force of all your repressed doubts.

In short, when consistently practiced and taken to heart, the UU Principles do a good job of preparing a person to face death and die well.