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Spirit of Life

Having a right to hope

Updated March 26, 2023
The word HOPE appears in cartoony writing with two line drawn white hands on either side with their fingers crossed.

In an excellent piece in the Guardian last week, Adrienne Matei likened our capacity to pick up our phones and ingest content to the feeding habits of the megamouth shark. It’s an apt comparison.

For me, because I now have this challenge of publicly reflecting on current affairs in the form of this blog, I’m more conscious of my filtering process than I have been before. Every time I turn to social media or a news source, I have to choose what to chomp down on and what to filter out. In reflecting on this, I realized recently that, in some small corner of my mind, I was holding this belief that a week will come when there won’t be any bad news to write about. Sure, there would be the usual traffic jams and slow march towards ecological collapse, but nothing really newsy. 

And then I heard about the fires in the Amazon, which is the kind of news that stops you in your tracks. This is the kind of news that makes you go, oh, like, that abstract ecological collapse? Really is right here on our doorsteps, threatening this current generation, let alone the next one.

I think this secret belief that I had—this idea that a moment of non-newsiness would someday arrive—was some kind of hope-adjacent thought. It wasn’t what you could call frank hope, which is explicit, and is not generally psychically bifurcated from reality. Frank hope is like scanning the skies and going, “I really hope it doesn’t rain today,” or glancing at your phone and thinking, “I really hope I get that important piece of news soon.” Hope-adjacent thoughts—like the kind you have when you’re surprised by reality—are the kind that you may not even be aware of. It’s the kind of thought that you didn’t even realized was fuelled by hope. It’s things like, “Whoa, I’m surprised Trump could be this hateful (I was hoping it was otherwise)!” or “Why is Doug Ford cutting funding to municipalities (I was hoping it would be otherwise!)?”

In other words, hope can serve many uses; it can obscure or reveal, placate or motivate. 

I volunteered in the hospice sector for about five years, and my last stint of volunteering was at Kensington Hospice, a beautiful 10-bed residential facility in Toronto’s Kensington Market. I can’t find it online, but posted in a few places throughout the hospice was a list of patients’ rights. One of them was that patients were entitled to have hope, no matter how they defined it for themselves. 

When I first started volunteering there, I was really struck by this, because I judged it to be disconnected from reality. People who move into a residential hospice have an estimated life span of three months. Having hope—which, to me, sounded like the hope to be cured or to live a long life—made me profoundly uncomfortable.

(Pro tip: anytime you find yourself judging the shit out of something because IT makes YOU uncomfortable, it is definitely about YOU, and not about the thing/person/situation you’re judging).

It didn’t take me long to understand that having the right to exercise hope was deeply tied to a resident’s personhood and autonomy, something that even the most ill among us are still entitled to be connected to.

The important part about a hospice residence having hope was precisely about the resident, and how they wanted to define it on any given day.  

I remember taking a lunch order from one resident who, after telling me what she wanted to eat, sighed, “It’s so nice to be hungry!”

I quickly learned that hoping for an appetite was very common among some residents. I found this deeply humbling. (Side note: There was a LOT about food that was very charged in hospice—given food’s connection to life itself—that I will write about in future.)

Hope can certainly be a tool of self-deception, one that increases pain by separating us from reality; just exercising hope for a news-free week, or a solution to the crisis in the Amazon, is insufficient in and of itself. And yet! To engage in meaningful action, we must have that useful streak of hope in us, one that actives us.

(Ann Friedman’s newsletter this week had some helpful info on what we can do from here for the Amazon.) For this reason, using hope as tool of discernment to get through these times is ok with me.

But I won’t be waiting for that bad news-free week anymore.