Wednesday, February 13, 2008

February 13, 2008 - Hope Does Not Disappoint

“What price do you put on hope? Is $3,000 a week too much?” So begins a health column from the February 4th Newsweek. Jerry Adler, the columnist, is telling the story of a couple named Said and Mary Nedlouf. She had advanced breast cancer that her oncologist was calling untreatable. Her husband didn’t want her to lose hope. So, they agreed she would go to another doctor and pursue costly homeopathic treatments that weren’t covered by their insurance. The bottom line? $41,000, which the Nedloufs paid out of pocket.

The treatments did Mary little good. She died anyway, pretty much when the traditional-medicine doctors had predicted she would. As for Said, when he recalls the homeopathic doctor’s questionable advice, he’s left feeling angry. He feels the homeopath gave his wife false hope, encouraging her to hold out for a cure – when she would probably have been better advised to “get her affairs in order,” as they say.

This doctor, says the grieving husband, “robbed me of precious time to console her, to come to closure, to prepare for her departure.”

I place pretty near zero confidence in homeopathic treatments, myself. Everything I’ve read about this school of alternative medicine – a pharmacology based on an odd, 19th-century premise that repeatedly diluting medicinal substances with water makes them more (rather than less) effective – sounds like complete hokum to me. Even if homeopathic medicines did have some real medical value at full strength (a premise that’s very much open to question), then by what stretch of the imagination does diluting them make them more effective?

Yes, I know some people claim to have derived benefits from homeopathic treatment – and I would never presume to tell fellow patients not to seek out an otherwise-harmless treatment they think could possibly help. I'm sure, also, that many homeopathic practitioners are fine people, and practice listening skills in ways not so many traditional physicians are willing or able to do. Yet, I also know the placebo effect is a powerful thing. I see little evidence that homeopathy is more effective than a sugar pill, if that sugar pill is prescribed by a doctor the patient trusts.

The Newsweek article raises, for me, the question of hope. What is it? Where do we find it? How do we maintain it, over time? When – if ever – should we stop hoping?

“Hope,” says Paul in Romans 5:5, “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This is an image of abundance, abundance in the midst of utter desolation.

Paul can speak of such things because he has already seen, in his own life, the love of God poured out in such abundance that it overflows. Paul doesn’t speak of suffering as one who has never known it. Rather, he speaks as one with scars on his soul – one who has known not only persecutions but also what it feels like to have been a persecutor himself, and to have repented of that evil.

“I know what it is,” he writes soberly to the Philippians, “to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (Philippians 4:12).

Then, and only then, does Paul goes on to add these well-loved words: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13). Paul can make that audacious claim because he has had the experience of casting his body off a spiritual cliff, and finding God’s arms were there to catch him.

In what, indeed, does our hope consist, as cancer patients? Is it in the unique pharmacology of the next new treatment to come down the pike? Or, is hope something else altogether, something we discover deep within us and bring to our work of self-healing?

There’s also a communal aspect to hope. In the words of Chinese author Lin Yutang, “Hope is like a road in the country. There was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.”

I find something deeply profound, and remarkably true-to-life, about that humble image. Yes, of course it is the imprints of many feet that make a rustic footpath. It’s easy to see the footpath when others have been that way before. Yet, who is it who first grasps the vision that there ought be a pathway here, and begins the work of walking it?

Poet Emily Dickinson calls hope:

“...the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all...

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”

No: hope does not disappoint us – we, who live with cancer. True hope, hope that’s founded on something stronger than mere pharmaceutical formulas, can never disappoint.

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