Strategies of Hope
Dear friends, it was April when I wrote you about the IGems engineering students and their contagious enthusiasm for life. What has happened to you in this half a year since? Trying to recall when I last consciously thought about hope, a morning in July stands out, when I found an in memoriam to a respected and loved member of our town’s medical professionals: paediatrician Dr John Wickens. He succumbed to COVID-19. The news of his passing suddenly put him alive and well in my living room, surrounded by parents and their children. They had formed a support group of parents whose children were diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. I hosted some of this group’s meetings and heard many stories of how they were in awe of Dr Wickens. They wished they could ask him more questions. I rang Dr Wickens and asked if he could spare the time for an informal evening. He accepted the invitation right away.
This turned out to be an unforgettable Winter’s evening, the living room packed with slightly nervous mothers and fathers and with the children sharing the rug in front of the fireplace. Dr Wickens spoke easily and engaged with the parents.
Suddenly an 11-year-old boy, who had listened intently to every word, piped up anxiously if he could also ask a question. ‘Please do,’ prompted Dr Wickens – directing all his attention to the boy.
The question resounded through the room: ‘Dr, when I grow up, will I get better?’
The answer resounded even stronger: ‘Of course you will!’
For just a moment he looked away from the boy and in one glance took in all the parents. ‘Never, ever take hope away!’ he stated.
Then he turned to the boy and continued: ‘Let me share with you that I had the same challenges when I was your age. It did not stop me from studying and becoming a medical doctor, did it?’
Later, when everyone was chatting over tea and biscuits, I walked Dr Wickens to his car at the gate. I thanked him with a bunch of flowers and a bottle of humble wine. This took him completely by surprise – used, as he was, to giving of himself unselfishly.
Years later, I met the mother of the brave boy and asked her how he was doing.
‘He has grown into a much more confident teenager!’ she said.
How poignant it is that those words, about keeping hope alive, so many years later and in such challenging times, can re-ignite their empowering charge. This positive energy was felt by all of us at that moment – and how much more we all need to embrace this idea today!
Now, in November, toward end-of-year review, I ask myself: did I actually manage to keep hope alive? As for most people, this year kept throwing me curve balls. Worries about health, loss and grief, challenges of more online working from home…and here, in South Africa, despondent weeks of escalated violence. On top of all this, chaos caused by electricity outages and water crises. And yet, in spite of this, the comment I most heard people make has been: “Time flies!” The weeks and months fly by and collectively we perceive this acceleration. But, we cannot see what we are heading for.
For planners who like to set goals, this blurred horizon demands a mindset change. I, for one, have had to adapt to progressing through uncertainty ‘one day at a time’.
Paradoxically, supporting someone through deep bereavement has inspired me to do this. At 79 he is trying to cope with the loss of his beloved wife. He told me that every time a neighbour or a relative asks him how he is coping, he answers: ‘One day at a time.’ He says this even on days when he feels he is not coping at all.
I met this man round Easter when, in the depth of his loss, he began to diarise… fragments of memories, emotions…. He asked me if it were possible to convert his notes into a book: ‘As a memory of our life, that I can dedicate to my wife?’ Today the galley proofs of this book are being readied for print. Exactly one year since his wife died. The title page carries the words Ware liefde kent geen grenzen – True love knows no boundaries. Indeed, no better words describe this couple’s victory of love over a world that kept them apart. He came from a post-war working-class family in Amsterdam. Listening to his recollections of housing and food shortages, made me reread some war diaries. And reflect on our current challenges, compared to world tragedies of a mere few generations ago…
I quote from Çhronicle of Youth, Vera Brittain’s war diary of 1913 – 1917. She was 18 when she started writing this diary.
‘Truly we of this generation are born to a youth very different from what we ever supposed or imagined for ourselves. Trouble and disasters are menacing us, the nature of which we cannot even guess at. (…) There are only two things possible now. To act when that can be done. And to endure. To endure grief and disappointment with patience and courage and with brave cheerfulness which will make other people’s burdens seem more bearable to them.’
Our pandemic fatigue is not of the scale of the drawn-out war trauma with its mass slaughter of human life. But it poses its own challenge to endure. This is a moment in time to consider that through my own endurance I help others to take courage again. I am deeply impressed and inspired by the sensitivity of someone so young to the tragedies of others. Thinking about the selfish crime, money-greed corruption and messed-up health policies that ravage South Africa throughout the current crisis, I hearten myself when I read: ‘To help others to courage by one’s endurance is a far greater destiny than to enjoy never-ending satisfaction or complacent supremacy, rousing others to irritation and envy.’
# one day at a time # keeping hope alive # endurance