“Hope is not optimism, nor is it conviction that something will go well. Rather it is the certainty that something has meaning…regardless of its outcome.” Vaclav Havel
From where I stand now, I feel I can truly say that life (for me anyway) is not about happiness, at least not in the ways it’s most commonly perceived to exist. Rather it is about finding peace and meaning. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel any joy or happiness, but that I find those things through the meaning I attach to my life and experiences.
In Viktor Fankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning he describes a therapy session with a woman who has tried to kill herself and her disabled older child after the death of her younger child. He asks her to describe her life as if she is 80 years old looking back on her past. She speaks about how she did her best to care for her children, to ensure that the one who died had the best care and the most love she could give him and that the older one had the best opportunities and experiences she could give him. Having realised this, she finds the hope to go on. Not the optimism, but the certainty that her life has meaning.
For me much of the meaning and joy in my life came from being Zoe’s mum. What that looked like before she was diagnosed was very different to what it became afterwards and what it is now.
For almost all of my life I have struggled with anxiety, feelings of never being good enough, not doing things right. I envied those people (everyone but me?) who never worried, but always seemed to land on their feet anyway.
When Zoe was born, she became the tender centre of my life and the source of joy, but like many parents, that meant I only worried more. About all the usual things, healthy food, developmental milestones, having a family home in the right school zone, providing the right opportunities in the form of swimming lessons, soccer, etc while dealing with the guilt of being a working mum. And of course the feeling that I was doing none of this the way I “should”.
In some ways I held worry like a talisman. Surely nothing bad could happen if I had already worried enough, thought ahead about all the bad things that could happen to ward them off and tried really hard to be perfect, right? Wrong. And when Zoe’s diagnosis hit us, it also struck me like an epiphany that all of that worry was wasted. That rather than preventing this terrible thing (one I had forgotten to worry about anyway) it had simply stolen some of the happiness I could have had over those days. So through Zoe’s treatment I learned how to let go of the fear, how to find the meaning, hope and happiness in the every day.
To a large degree, I learned it from Zoe, and I learned it from the other kids on the oncology ward. Despite harsh treatments and unpleasant moments. the kids didn’t dwell on their cancer. They let go of the bad moments in order to enjoy the good ones, playing in the playroom, making friends with the nurses, using their IV stands as vehicles for joyrides, enjoying a favourite meal when the general anaesthetic and radiation treatment was done for the day. During this time, Zoe and I started a tradition of lying in bed at night and asking each other what our “best bit” was that day. It was very rare that Zoe couldn’t find one, even on very rough days, days where radiation had burnt her skin raw, when she could barely whisper from the damage to her throat, where mic-key button feeds came straight back up. So of course I had to find those best things too, to choose to change my perspective.
I will forever be grateful that Zoe and childhood cancer taught me this. Because in the two and a half years between the end of her treatment and relapse, although there were the usual stresses of life, as well as the more unusual ones that childhood cancer brings, we left worry and anxiety behind as much as we could. We found the best things most days, we had hope, we found meaning (or in the words of Andrew Solomon, we forged our own meaning), regardless of what the outcome would be.
And how did I find hope when the outcome made itself clear and we lost Zoe? I found it in the certainty that her life had meaning, for herself, for me, for the people whose lives she touched. And so, in being her mother, the guardian of her memory and legacy, my life has meaning too. Finding my way to this hope was not an overnight revelation, it really was a hard won forging of meaning, and that in itself makes it all the more precious.
How have you found hope and forged meaning from your life’s experiences?