Death lingers ever so close to my house, to me. I've had two cancerous tumours removed and I simply cannot forget about them. I shower and my hands run over my lumpy scars. Or I catch glimpses of my crimson cuts in the mirror.
I now have the arduous task of attending appointments with a specialist who checks my skin and lymph nodes for any signs of more melanoma. He tells me that there is a chance, albeit small, the cancer could metastasise and I could die. He tells me that there is an even higher chance I will get more tumours. In fact, he is certain I will.
Of course this all leaves me terrified. I'm still in my third decade of life; I don't know how to live with the shadow of death hovering over me.
Besieged by self-pity, I dawdle home from my appointment with the specialist. I eat too much chocolate, and bang things loudly on the kitchen counter as I prepare dinner.
But I know I can't stay in such a state and soon I begin to embrace optimism. Optimism arranges life in a way that allows me to say things will get better. When I'm faced with the prospect of cancer invading my body, optimism says the chances are it won't happen. I will survive. To be optimistic is to expect life to be ultimately kind.
But as night settles in I find myself enveloped by pessimism once again. Pessimism skews the statistics. It tells me that I will certainly die; quickly and excruciatingly and tragically. Pessimism is antagonistic; it keeps me awake at night.
Hope is not optimism
Overcome with pessimism, I despair. I become paralysed by fear. So I do what I've done all my life, I search for God's presence.
I live in a manse situated on church property, and so each morning I trudge across the carpark to the chapel in search of peace. Surrounded by tapers and Bibles and prayer books I plead with God to restore my optimism so I can feel better, happier.
But as I examine the Scriptures, as I read words penned by the saints long ago, I find that within the Christian tradition optimism has never been a high priority. Few believers ever talked about optimism as pertinent to the Christian faith. There was, however, alluring talk about Christian hope.
Optimism and hope are vastly different attitudes. Henri Nouwen explained it like this:
Optimism is the expectation that things will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfil God's promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.
The hope of the faithful
In fact, Nouwen thought that to embrace hope I need to firstly let go of my optimism and face despair. I must not seek to escape despair. I should not run from, or deny, the reality of cancer in my life. This is because I will never know what hope is until I have been overcome by anguish. Hope is birthed out of despair. After all, the essence of the gospel is finding hope through the suffering and death of Jesus.
Nouwen suggested Jesus was not an optimist. Nor was he a pessimist. Rather Jesus spoke about a hope that is not based on whether things will get better or worse. Jesus' hope seemed to rest upon the idea that, whatever the outcome may be, God will be with us at all times, in all places and in all things. This means that even in those grim movements when I am left traumatised at the sickening sight of my scars, because I have hope, I can still experience the nearness of God.
I am discovering that Jesus' followers are called to be people of hope and build Christian communities that are alive with a palpable, vibrant hope. Hope is the essence of the spiritual life, not optimism. Christian hope is wonderful, it is mystical. My growing experience of hope means I fear less and dance more. Hope gives me the freedom to carry on with my life wherever it may take me.
Father Henri J.M. Nouwen's book 'Bread for the Journey' published in 1997.
Danielle Carney lives in Melbourne and has a degree in Christian Theology.
Danielle Carney's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/danielle-carney.html