Hope for Hope

Reading The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness by Jerome Groupman. Very interesting as he explores the difference hope makes in the possibility of recovery. I couldn’t help thinking of all the times, optimism has been brutally torn from me or my husband by doctors. It is very difficult to remain hopeful when every possible negative outcome is spelled out. Let alone the damage done by doctors’ scaring the life out of us with false alarms like the time my husband was told he had a sinister growth in his head which turned out to be a nasal polyp.

I know I now sound negative, but I did have a battle all the way through with my back, being told flatly nothing could be done, to get used to pain, that I had to be dragging my foot before I could have an MRI, by which time nerve damage would have been done.

It has been very hard to maintain optimism, but I have consistently done better than forecast. Take the GP who said he “could see no physiological reason why my digestive tract would ever be normal again.” I remember walking back into his office to be told, “You can’t be better.” To which I replied, “But I am.”. Not 100% but miles better.

And in the old days when my father practiced medicine, compassion, which now would be counted as condescension, allowed doctors to use their judgement in what they told their patients. A young woman with very early MS symptoms was not told her possible fate at that point. As my father said, why blight her present with fear? The MS never developed and the same happened with two other friends – they were diagnosed but had no more symptoms. Unfortunately, they know the diagnosis and it still hangs over them like a cloud 30 healthy years later.

After my ovarian cyst surgery, I was told I was very unlikely ever to have a child or even keep my ovaries long. The doctor said (did he think he was encouraging?), “We don’t have to castrate you yet.” Would he have phrased it like that to a man?

As I walked out of the hospital, I said, “I’ll be back (meaning pregnant) in 10 months.” Pitying looks followed me. But I was back by the end of the year with an 8lb. 12oz. daughter.

Paul Pearsall wrote a wonderful, honest book about his battle with cancer in which he said his doctors kept insisting he accept the fact he was terminal, accusing him of being in denial. As he said, if he accepted that he would become terminal. He fought and struggled – and lived. I am not for a moment implying that positive thinking will miraculously save our lives. I have known too many brave people who have lost ths battle, but hope was all he had and to surrender that would have lessened his body’s chances of victory.

Jack Layton’s daughter Sarah said last night on the anniversary of his death that there was always hope – up till the last breath. I can’t quote her exact words, but the gist was that without hope we have nothing. In his last days, slowly and painfully, he wrote in a letter to the Canadian people, “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair.”

Finally, my father aged 86 was very ill after my mother died. Ill and lonely. I was told that he would never be well again, that with care he might sometimes manage coffee with a friend. One year later, his grandchildren took him on safari in South Africa. I got a wonderful email from the kids:

“He has lost his false teeth (par for the course), he spent last night up a tree watching animals and we had to stop him getting out of the car into the jaws of a hyena.” This accompanied by video of him flushed with excitement (and wine tasting – as a true Scot, he wouldn’t spit it out) on the Cape Wine Route.

The following year, he took the Rocky Mountaineer Train across the Rockies and then went on to Nepal where he spent his 89th birthday in a hot air balloon with my younger daughter going over the Himalayas. I have the photo, he has lost his teeth again, his sweater is on back to front, but he was THERE.

I am not saying you can beat the odds with optimism, but that you have less chance without. And I am certainly NOT joining the “blame the victim” brigade, who just succeed in making the poor patient feel guilty and inadequate, when things don’t go well. Of course, often they don’t and it isn’t for want of trying, visualizing etc. But let’s keep in mind that they CAN go well and have the biology of hope on our side.

It is rather like the police telling women to walk confidently down the street as a protection against assault. Of course, it isn’t the woman’s fault if she is attacked, but she does have a better chance if she moves briskly and positively.

So, if we are engaging the biology of hope, how does it work. First off, if one hopes, one looks for answers and notices possibilities, but most of all, one primes one’s body.

According to research Dr. Groupman found, when we have diseased or failing organs, they send signals to our brain that make us feel pain, anxiety or despair. And as they recover, trickles of messages of hope get through.

It is a vicious circle: the more pain we feel, the more despair and the less hope. But, he points out, “hope tempers pain and as we sense less pain, that feeling of hope expands, which further reduces pain.” As hope grows, it is easier to switch from a grey, descending future, with doors closing to a possible upward path. It is easier to practice “remembered wellness.” To have a vision of possible wholeness to reach for.

Further info:

Staying Healthy in a Stressful WorldGail Harris on Dr. Herbert Benson’s work on Remembered Wellness

Interview with Dr. Herbert Benson

Timeless Healing: thw Power and Biology of Belief by Dr. Herbert Benson

The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness by Jerome Groupman

I have looked for Paul Pearsall’s book as I have never forgotten it. His website lists Miracle in Maui: Let Miracles Happen in Your Life. I don’t think it is the same gritty book I read, but it does seem to tell his story.

Note on Remembered Wellness: When recovering from spinal surgery, I consciously remembred what it felt like to move easily and pain-free. I imagined it with every fibre of my body and today I walk well and with joy. However, I didn’t think to imagine sitting or standing and those are that are hard and painful.

About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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