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.”


ÃœbercoolEve said...

Dear Mr Muder
Happy 49th to you if it was this past week.

Im posting on your blog to thank you for an article/poems of yours I found on InternetGurus.Com. It was entitled "The Male Muses". I am using it as a reference in an essay I should have up on my blog soon- if I can overcome sheer laziness and the desire to moon over someone I cannot have at the moment. Males can definitely be muses..even middle-aged ones.

Thanks again

The Blah Brain said...

Hey, nice blog you've got here. :)

The Emerson Avenger said...

Happy Thanksgiving Doug.

MargyL said...

When my mom was dying of cancer, and I prayed and medidated, at first I thought that the prayer and the meditaation *had* to have a positive effect, because otherwise, they whole thing was bogus. Later, when I realized that they wouldn't just fix everything, that I couldn't order up a miracle, I saw that it was all about what we do -- what you describe as active vs. passive hope.

A friend (Jan, who you know) is an astrologer, and she also practices it actively rather than passibly. She doesn't tell you what the world will do; she tells you what kinds of challenges you are likely to face and where you strengths and opportinities lies to face them.

Love, M