Friday, August 13, 2010


Any given story can be hopeful or not-so-hopeful. It all depends on where you put the emphasis. For the past fifteen years I have experimented with stories, reflected on hope, read books, listened to stories, told stories, and tried to figure out what makes a story into a hopeful story. In this series, I will share some of the things I have learned along the way. I welcome comments and observations from readers.

1) Create hope in a story you tell by making sure you know in your heart where the hope is. Feel it first.

Like so many important lessons of life, I learned this one the hard way. Of course I have always known that hope, among other things, is an emotion. It’s something we feel. When we say, “There is no hope,” it isn’t because we’ve searched the world in every corner and found no evidence of hope. What we really mean is, “I do not feel any hope.”
Hope is a positive complex emotion, a little like joy, a little like excitement, a good feeling with doubt and uncertainty nipping at its edges. It comes to us from events, from points of view, from successes, from people in our lives. Stories are a major source of hope.
I have often heard and read stories that gave me hope. As a young teen-ager I lay on my bed on bright June evenings sniffling my way through Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. What a sad book it was, a story of racism and bullying and systemic indifference to injustice. And yet, at the end of that story, I felt hopeful. I believed that things could change! This month, noting the 50th anniversary celebrations of the publication of that book, I see that millions of others were similarly affected. Writing at a time when the injustices she exposed were still in full flower, Harper Lee knew how to put the hope into a story. I, unfortunately, am not Harper Lee.
Back in 2005 my dying mother was blundering her way through the corridors of palliative care. I was spending a lot of time with her there, experiencing the little pleasures, the big heartbreaks, the nagging frustrations. At the same time I was working in my daily routine, and presentation requests from palliative care organizations were coming to the Hope Foundation. In any year I would have responded knowledgeably to such requests, but in 2005 I felt truly engaged. I knew the situation from the patient’s daughter’s perspective and my rock solid hope content was filtered through my personal experience. I presented with passion, but not, unfortunately, with hope.
At the end of one such session I was approached by a sad and sincere doctor. “What could we do to make things better for your mother?” he asked. To my horror I found that I had no answer. And that’s when I discovered that I did not see the hope in my own stories. I had been talking about the impersonal approach of the health system. My talk, loaded with hope content and ostensibly about hope, was of limited use to these people working in the health system because it did not give them hope. When people hire a hope specialist to give them a talk, they are looking for hope. I had failed to deliver.
I was about to be re-tested. Another talk was scheduled for a different group two months hence. I would have like to withdraw, but the conference program had long ago been distributed. By the time the date arrived, my mother had died. I vowed not to make the same mistake again.
A hopeful story is, as I had often said in classes, not necessarily a story with a happy ending. It is, rather, a story where somebody changes, or something exceeds expectations, or something surprising happens. I was shocked to find that the stories I had been telling in presentations contained very little of this. Returning to the events leading up to and following my mother's death, I went back to my hope knowledge and began asking myself some questions. Who changed? What occurrences exceeded my expectations? What surprised me?
There were an astonishing number of answers. My mother changed. My father changed. I changed. The hospital staff exceeded my expectations. Many things surprised me. A treasure trove of hopeful stories were buried here. Among others, there was the story of how my father learned to grow vegetables and how my mother talked herself into welcoming the move to the palliative care suite. There was the story of how a hospital cutback that closed the nursery created the most wonderful palliative care apartment. There was the story of the nurse who brought lip balm and the one who told Mom comforting stories about the death of other patients. There was the story of the nurse who held my mother in the middle of the night and whispered to us that maybe it was time. And then there was the story of the hope-opotamus, the tiny stuffed animal with the power to command staff in three different hospitals and make them want to follow his lead. When I pulled together these stories, I knew where the hope was, and I knew then how to shape the stories of that painful time so that they would be hopeful to me, and also hopeful to others.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wendy - I found this post very moving; I believe that for me the barrier to frame our experiences in hopeful ways is connected to the experience of trauma for us directly as well as secondarily when working in the helping profession witnessing trauma. I'm still mulling.... Dorothy