I recently encountered a description of the word “hope,” which struck me as one of those undeniably true things that you feel in your bones. In his beautifully-wrought memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Paul Kalinithi wrote that “The word hope first appeared in English about a thousand years ago, denoting some combination of confidence and desire.”
Indeed, on further investigation, I learned that the word’s origin, from Old English, encompasses two parts: both trust or confidence, and desire or wish. Both concepts must be present to bring about the word itself, and by extension, it seems, the actual act of hope.
For most of the last two months, California has been choked in smoke so thick it’s been difficult to see past a couple of houses in each direction. Every time I went outside, I got an asthma attack. I’d go out to the car, I’d get an attack. I’d let the dogs out to go to the bathroom, I’d get an attack. With another chronic illness underlying it all, I descended into a rote necessity. Make breakfast, lie down. Help my son with his school’s computer connection, lie down. Feed the dogs, lie down.
This is my particular version of bare necessity, which probably doesn’t look like yours. But I’ve heard from enough friends and read enough accounts to know that this state of necessity iswidespread. You’re spooning food into kids’ mouths while delivering a work presentation. You’re fixing your car while scanning job postings. You’re divvying up the last of the beans while shoving another medical bill into the drawer.
The air here has been clean for two straight weeks. I can remain upright for a couple of hours, a recent record. I find myself encountering hope every so often, around a corner or in the next room. I’m surprised, because that means some amount of both conditions, trust and desire, are present, doesn’t it? I wasn’t aware of the shift.
Of course, there are things to wish for, things I, in particular, care about. The election is in less than two weeks. Fire season’s end is drawing closer. Scientists are making documented progress on treatments and vaccines for COVID in the medium-term, if not imminently. Passionate people are learning about, moving to deconstruct racism. But the other part of hope, confidence or trust, feels much more delicate, disappearing entirely at times. And the conditions for trust feel like they’ve been battered this year, time and again. I could enumerate them here, from the sudden school closure to hospitals being overrunto shocking political announcements. But why relive, at least right now, what feels like ceaseless body-blows?
Where does my current confidence, one I didn’t know existed, come from? Certainly from the firefighters who have squelched enough of our blazes in the last three months that the air has become breathable again. From the doctors, scientists, and nurses who leave their homes’ relative safety every day for the hazards inherent in caring for others. From the people who simply keep trying, keep doing. Maybe that’s the key. Keep trying, keep doing. I can’t always do that, in sickness and bedbound. But a lot of the time, I can.
In recognizing my hope, I feel like a child carrying around a small balloon. A little blessed, a little self-conscious. Is it even appropriate? Naïve? A balloon has an ephemeral life; it may blow away with the next gust, deflate in the night. But what of clutching it now? I think I’ll hold on to it — and its inherent optimism, timidity, and transience too.