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the dilemma of hope

hopeHope can be confusing. A man diagnosed with terminal cancer asked me two months ago to help me prepare for death. By the time we met, he’d given away his furniture, quit his job, sold the house, begun a steady process of divesting himself of worldly possessions. Within a few weeks of palliative medical care, his condition improved somewhat. Now he’s about to declare personal bankruptcy and has moved into a tiny furnished basement. Maybe I have more time than I thought. Maybe I’m getting better. What a dilemma: first clarity, now despair.

During the ups and downs of the ordeal of a terminal illness (writes Kathleen Dowling Singh), … the person is torn between the desire to live and the fear that allowing hope to emerge one more time would only create more misery if the treatment fails [or the illness takes a downward turn]. As one dying person put it, “I can stand the despair. It’s the hope I can’t bear” (p.95).

How do I best support this man now? What is there for him, if not hope?

The dying process insist that we pay attention, that we be present to the moment-by-moment experience … in a way that most of us have never been present before. With growing mindfulness, with the daily enforced accommodation of fear and new loss, comes disengagement (p.96).

body with open heartThis takes me back to my own loss experience three years ago when, intuitively and out of sheer desperation, I taught myself to interrupt the incessant thoughts of what-if and maybe by forcing attention away from thinking (i.e. fantasizing, fabricating, imagining) to being in my body. One half breath was all I was able to manage at first, then an inhale and an exhale. Hour by hour, day after day, I pushed myself to return to this moment and then this moment. Only in present moments was I able to–literally–come up for air and perceive things as they actually were (not as I wished them to be, to remain, or to return to).

source: Singh, K.D. (1998). The grace in dying: a message of hope, comfort, and spiritual transformation. HarperSanFrancisco. image:

2 responses »

  1. Yes! By sheer coincidence, I wrote a post on this same subject (and only came here afterwards, promise!). The power and freshness of the present is too often overlooked – it’s like the mind just can’t handle it, so invents detours instead. “I must look for peace because I can’t deal with the peace that already exists.”

    What a mad game we play!

    • what is with that — this going to the dark first and only after several reminder, to the light. and the light is there all the time: in the next breath. boy what a “practice”. thanks, april.


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