Saturday, October 24, 2009


“We can’t be thinking that we must choose between hope and reality.” That’s what I always say. I Say, “Reality will always be there. It’s not a choice. The choice we have is whether or not to have hope alongside the reality.”
That said, and said often too, I found myself in a right tizzy over a lunch presentation I was invited to give. The request came from a hospital chaplain looking for a speaker to help the hospital celebrate Spiritual Care Week. He said, “We need somebody to give us hope given all the cutbacks and changes.”
Cutbacks and changes? This man is surely a master of the understatement. Last spring our health system was in full boom mode. Nursing schools were growing and recruiters were combing the world to see what nurses we could steal from poorer countries who had trained them. Politicians were proudly announcing major new medical centres. Doctors were flocking here everywhere.
It was a welcome change from the early 1990’s, when, following a boom, enormous cutbacks threw the system into chaos. Beds were closed, services were regionalized into 17 regions. Elections were held so that “real people without special interest” could run the system. The elected officials were dismissed. The number of regions was cut to 9. The number of regions was cut to 1. Taxes were cut in the time of prosperity. Health care premiums were eliminated. And then, when the boom turned to bust, as booms have done throughout history, the government said we didn’t want any new taxes, or restoration of the premiums that used to pay the bills, and hired a guy from Australia to shrink the system. In the blink of an eye we no longer needed any nurses, and we could close entire hospitals on the promise that the community would pick up the slack. Students in spiritual care came to work and found they no longer had supervisors. Hospitals didn’t need many chaplains. “We need somebody to give us hope given all the changes and cutbacks,” said the man, and the very idea of making a luncheon speech to people experiencing all of this put me into a right tizzy.
I fussed and stewed for a while, then put the file away and got on with other things. As the date for the lunch approached I retrieved the file and waited for inspiration to take charge. Inspiration was apparently unavoidably detained.
Down I went to the main floor to throw myself on the mercy of my colleagues. “I don’t know how to go there,” I whined.
Now I think, and this is always a motivator, that although my colleagues are always there to support me, there was not one of them who lusted after the opportunity to take my place. So when I remained unaided by their assurances that everything would be all right, they stepped up to the plate and got creative. Rachel said, “Wendy, if we can easily talk about hope with people who are dying, how bad can staff cuts and system changes really be?”
There was no argument that could be made to that. So we had a good laugh, and then we role-played some really irreverent things that I could say but wouldn’t, and then I got some of my old faithful materials together and went to speak at lunch.
Three people had arrived 5 minutes before talk time. My host said, “I don’t know how many people will be here.”
“We’ll be fine with three,” I said.
Two more people came in, two more followed behind. Three minutes past start time the crowd had swelled to forty and the room was feeling full. The universe was friendly. The crowd contained a program assistant who went to school with my kids, and the mother of a young university student I taught in last year’s hope class. They laughed at my little jokes, and we talked for a while about the hope-sucking conditions that plague their work.
When it came time to provide the hope, I brought out Barrack Obama’s acceptance speech and showed them how he artfully gathered American history into a “yes we can” scenario when he might have used the same facts to write a speech called “No we can’t.” Then we talked for a moment about the long view of health history, the gains that have been made over a century and never lost. Then we ran out of time. There’s only so much you can do in 55 minutes. They laughed at my final jokes and went smiling back to work.
Not much changed in health care that day, though it struck me that some patients might have a better afternoon because I’d been in the basement in their hospital at lunch. And once again I was confronted with the truth, the thing I know beyond any doubt, the truth that holds across the world, across the ages. Hope exists regardless of the circumstances. Some people see it more easily than others. Hope work gives tools to those who tend to see it, tools of story and language and symbol, tools of humour and understanding. If you can find somebody who can see hope and show you how they see it, it’s not so difficult to see it yourself.

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