Hope does not disappoint us

  • May 22, 2008

In a downtown housing complex, I met Anne. Her parents raised her in this place, and since their deaths she’s lived here alone.  She’s well-known in the neighbourhood; it’s her home.  As a child, she was picked-on, teased and called a “freak” because of a disability.  She has a meagre education, partly because she was so unaccepted in school that it was difficult for her to finish, partly because her disability reduced her mental capacities.

She had enough self-possession to grow into a strong, compassionate woman. In many ways she’s overcome the stigma, at least in her exterior life.

Inside, though, she carries the label “Outcast.” She longs for, but fears, intimate relationships.  Sooner or later, any friend or beloved is bound to leave. Deep down, some part of her fears she really is outcast, and always will be, that friendship and intimacy are illusions, that she’s marked out for isolation. Still she keeps reaching out; prays nightly; helps feed the hungry every day; is faithful to her inner work and the work of relationship. I’ve never seen her give up on anyone, including herself.

She doesn’t hope her disability will go away.  She doesn’t hope her parents will come back. She doesn’t even hope, after 70 years, that people will grow kinder.

It may seem that Anne isn’t very hopeful. Yet when I ask what hope is, Anne teaches me.

It’s a word I took for granted my first 30 years. I hoped for good grades, a good mate, the right birthday present. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t.  I didn’t realize this wasn’t hope at all, that I was using the wrong word to describe wishes and expectations.

One can live a perfectly normal life, with all the ups and downs (or even plenty of ups), and be without hope. When I realized I was living as though God’s word had no power in my life, then I began to glimpse what hope is. When I saw that I was carrying on as though only external things are real and lasting, then I saw that hope had left me. When I ceased to believe that what I most longed for could ever be real, then I saw it was hope I lacked. Hopelessness itself teaches.

Hope isn’t about looking for this or that to happen, or not happen. It’s about not just existing but living. It’s about the soul being touched, and knowing it’s been touched. It’s the opening where God is allowed in. 

And in one of the most hopeless places you might imagine is my teacher of hope, Anne.

Anne met suffering by turning within and discovering the treasure inside. She’s found the great secret:  God hides Himself inside us, so that when we turn to look — at ourselves or at one another — we find Him. Anne can continue reaching out to people, despite the risk, because her hope doesn’t depend on them, but opens her to them.

She reminds me of a story in Luke’s Gospel (ch. 13). A silent disabled woman becomes a shining light. She’s bent over and can’t straighten up. But Jesus sees her. The overlooked woman is seen by the Light of God. He calls to her. He touches her. She doesn’t speak. But at His touch she straightens up, and in straightening gives glory to God. Love touches her, and she lets Him touch; she receives what He gives and lets it make her whole.

Could it be so simple? I look at Anne, the hopeful outcast.  Even for Anne, fear remains and she finds it hard to believe in her own beauty.  Perhaps the no-longer-bent-over woman also found it hard, for though she was made straight there was still plenty of crookedness around her.

Having hope doesn’t necessarily make things easier; it might even open our eyes to some of the pain in the world. But it brings joy.  The now-straightened woman makes the whole crowd rejoice.  Anne makes me rejoice.  Many things in life are disappointing; but hope, St Paul tells us, does not disappoint (Romans 5:5).