In 2003, Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard wrote a book called The Anatomy of Hope, exploring the role that hope plays in how people recover from illness and disease. Using anecdotes culled from his decades as a hematologist and oncologist, Groopman explored the idea that hope is essential to recovery.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Groopman explained hope — and the crucial difference between hope and optimism — this way:
“An optimist says everything is going to turn out just fine… But in fact we know that things often don’t turn out just fine.
Hope is different. Hope is clear-eyed, it has no illusions. It sees all the difficulties, all the problems, in a very realistic way…and then, through those troubles, through those problems, it sees a possible path to a better future. And when you see that path, when you figure that path out in your mind, there is a tremendous emotional response, which changes the chemistry of the brain and the physiology of the body.”
In the same interview, Groopman shared the story of his own ‘botched’ back surgery that left him with chronic pain and severely restricted movement. After 19 years of living with pain, Groopman went to a rehabilitation physician – a man he describes as “brash and very in your face.” The rehab physician suggested in no uncertain terms that Groopman was “worshipping the god of pain,” and told Groopman that he had to change the way he thought about himself and his ability to live. As Groopman explains, “He challenged the assumption that I had no hope. And in that moment, I felt hope for the first time, and it was both frightening…and tremendously empowering and uplifting.”
I’m not qualified to address Doctor Groopman’s assertion that hope changes us physiologically (having allocated all of my brain space to song lyrics rather than medical school), but I do believe that the inability to see a possible path to a better future is what keeps us mired in grief, in anger, and in unfulfilling jobs and habits and relationships; it is what puts us on our knees at the altar of false gods like addiction and the opinions of others and — as Jerome Groopman discovered — pain.
The remedy for all of these things — for all of the circumstances that limit our vision to the present and preclude us from seeing the possibility that tomorrow holds — is hope.
Hope is the critical component of both recovery and restoration.
Hope is the antidote to darkness.
The idea that hope is essential to survival isn’t new, of course, and one of its biggest proponents was Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist and philosopher. In 1942, Frankl and his wife, along with other members of his family, were forced from their homes in Vienna and sent to concentration camps. In the lining of his overcoat, Frankl had hidden the nearly finished manuscript of a book he had been writing for years; while he was interned at Theresienstadt, a guard discovered the manuscript, and burned it.
By the time Frankl was moved to Auschwitz, he was sick with typhoid, emaciated, and barely clinging to life. He kept himself awake and alert by meticulously reconstructing the manuscript of the book on tiny scraps of paper that he stole from the guards. When his camp was liberated at the end of the war, Frankl was rescued — only to discover that his wife and family had all been killed.
Frankl went on to have a distinguished career and a fulfilling personal life, and was the author of many books, including the one he reconstructed at Auschwitz. Reflecting on his time in the concentration camps in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl asserted that the difference between those who survived and those who did not was the sense of hope that came with having a purpose — a sense that came to him in his bleakest moment:
“…We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucent’–and the light shineth in the darkness.”
Viktor Frankl never claimed to believe that everything would work out fine –that would have been completely ridiculous in his situation — but remember what Jerome Groopman said about the difference between optimism and hope? An optimist believes everything will get better, but hope is different. Hope is clear-eyed and has no illusions; hope has the ability to see — through the problems — a possible path out of the darkness.
Bishop Desmond Tutu also draws a distinction between optimism and hope. In 2009, he was interviewed by a man named Laurence Shorter, who was writing a book called The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life. Shorter was certain that Bishop Tutu would share his outlook and worldview, but when he introduced himself to Tutu as an optimist, the Bishop’s response was this: “I’m not an optimist. I am hopeful. Optimism can turn far too quickly into pessimism if conditions don’t go well. Hope… is different!”
Hope is different. It is what allows us to be able to put disappointment behind us, and to believe – to really believe — in the promise of a new beginning. Hope is the certainty that things will not always be as they are now. Hope is the knowledge that, despite the darkness we may find ourselves in currently, the light is always out there, shimmering on the horizon.
No matter where your hope comes from — whether from faith in God, faith in the essential goodness of mankind, faith in the restorative powers of a long walk or a good cigar or the unbeatable trinity of sunlight, saltwater and sea air,
and no matter where you find hope — in the care and concern of a friend, or the eyes of the person you love, or the smiles of your children, or the rising of the sun,
may hope sustain you in your time of need, making clear for you the possible path to a better future.
That’s my hope for you, and for me.
Listen to Dr. Jerome Groopman on NPR here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1638913