And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
~ Romans 5:3-5, NRSV
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. A very dear friend has been hospitalized for the past five weeks; during that time she has learned that she has two medical conditions, each of which could be very serious. Her situation is complicated by the inability of various medical specialists to agree on the best course of treatment. She wants someone to reassure her that there is hope for recovery and for restored quality of life. Gallant as Paul’s words to the Roman church may be, I suspect that she feels as if her prolonged suffering is sapping her endurance, chipping away at her sense of self, and robbing her of hope.
A doctor tried to relieve my friend’s anxiety by quoting a definition of hope from the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, I don’t have the OED at my fingertips, but I found this definition from the World English Dictionary to be shorter but very similar to that shared by the doctor: to wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment. The same doctor said something to the effect that statistics relate to a population and cannot be applied to the individual, because every individual case is different. In this case, he believes there is reason for hope.
I am hopeful. I expect that the doctors will eventually settle on an appropriate course of treatment, her medical situation will be resolved, and her strength will be restored. I believe she will be able to reclaim a full and fulfilling life.
I am also optimistic, in part because it is my nature and in part because I have made a conscious choice to focus on the positive. I won’t take the time to look up references for this post, but I have read of studies that indicate a positive attitude promotes healing and contributes to overall physical and emotional health. I choose happiness.
Hope is more situation specific than optimism, which is a generalized attitude. The hope I carry for my friend’s recovery may be no more than an extension of my essentially optimistic nature but I don’t think so. If I didn’t have “expectation of its fulfillment” I wouldn’t pray. I wouldn’t pray for her body’s defenses to be strengthened, and I wouldn’t pray that she and all of the medical practitioners make wise decisions. I certainly wouldn’t bother asking my other friends and colleagues to pray on her behalf.
Despite all of my hope and optimism I am not under any illusion that I have some mystic or psychic ability to see the future. Despite all the prayers being lifted on her behalf, despite all the words of encouragement and skilled medical care, there is the possibility that my beloved friend will never again have the quality of life she wants or that her loved ones want for her. My hope may be disappointed – yet I will continue to seek opportunities for hope and I will continue to pray for those who are ill or unhappy or otherwise in need, because God’s love has been poured into my heart.
 hope. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. www.thefreedictionary.com. Accessed October 15, 2010.