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Is Hope a Bitter Pill?

Ent'ot'o Mariam, Addis Ababa

I spent 7 years studying the healing traditions in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. At holy water sites across the country I witnessed people flock to find relief from physical and mental affliction. Therapy came in the form of pilgrimage, baptism, prayer, incantation and exorcism. I was open to the possibility of healing, unlike some of my fellow Brits who dismissed it as hocus focus and sought, through their work in NGOs, to introduce western medicine to the masses.

As a paediatric nurse, I already had an insiders knowledge of modern medicine, the allopathic system which treats a symptom with its opposite. The word is derived from allos meaning opposite and pathos meaning suffering. A good example is digitalis which causes the heart to slow down. In allopathic medicine, digitalis is used to treat someone with a racing heartbeat in order to slow it down. Not all medical systems work like this. In homeopathy, homeo meaning the same, digitalis is used in microscopic portions to treat someone with an excessively slow heart beat. The mirroring of the symptom stimulates the body to heal itself.

When children in my care on the oncology ward were relentlessly drugged and irradiated to rid them of cancer, died as a direct cause of the aggressive treatment, I had wondered about the ethics of my role as a nurse in administering these medicaments. It seemed to me that great harm was done to the child and their family, and I began to question the ability of western medicine to tend to our deepest needs. I was profoundly troubled by the way doctors dangled the hope of cure in front of parents, who were desperate for something to save their child, without fully explaining the suffering to which the treatment itself could give rise. I lamented the violent deaths some of these children experienced as treatment after treatment battered their bodies and the isolation units where the treatment was performed cut their social and family ties. The treatment not only failed, it robbed the child and their family of the opportunity to prepare for death. It was these experiences that drove me to explore other ways of looking at health – an enquiry that took me eventually to Ethiopia.

As I sat in the hermit’s hut at the edge of a holy spring watching a young lad serve bread I pondered on what had transformed him from the chained boy I had witnessed the year before, bucking and kicking. Mental health provision was so rudimentary in Addis Ababa twenty years ago that people were often chained to prevent them from harming themselves or others. This boy had been brought to the holy spring by his desperate family, and as a consequence of what he had experienced there, was now a quiet, sociable and helpful young man, serving the devotees of the hermit their lunch. I landed on hope as the key ingredient to his recovery – the hermit saw beyond his afflictions and gave him hope of a healthy future. I had plenty to say about gendered violence at the springs where women desperate for cure stripped to the quick and were beaten by male deacons wielding metal crosses. I’m not promoting holy water and exorcism as a panacea! I am curious about the role of hope, however. On the wards of a Welsh paediatric oncology unit, I deemed it something negative, cruel even. At the Ethiopian spring, I considered it a blessing and agent of healing.

What’s been your experience of hope? I’ve toyed with it over these years – it has shades of false optimism emanating from a head-in-the-sand-position. When I’ve longed for some quality of suffering to be over, hope has felt like a frenemy – simultaneously cheering me on and goading me with the impossible. But, the opposite is worse. Hopelessness is when the ostrich has fallen over completely and gazes about in dull appreciation of the wretchedness of suffering and the futility of life.

What I’m reaching for as I oscillate between hope and hopelessness, is something that has more the physic of homeopathy wherein the shades of suffering treat the condition of suffering. I admire the Buddhists their contemplation of death as a means to deepen the appreciation of life. We can’t avoid suffering and death, so embracing it lightly, gently befriending the unknown, mitigates the devastating blow when death or intense suffering comes knocking. It doesn’t take away the pain of grief, but the awareness that death is integral to life, means that there is a pathway already trodden out of the darkness, so it’s easier to find our way. Spring only flourishes after an autumn of decay and a dormant winter. Our lives pass through childhood into adulthood, old age and death. In our day-to-day lives, we experience the ebb and flow of suffering and return. We see it on the news in other people’s lives too.

When we allow ourselves acceptance of these patterns within the natural world of which we are a part, we don’t have to find acceptance for the first time in the aftermath of loss. Krishnamurti’s maxim that, “Truth is a pathless land” has been a guiding light to me. The path out of our own experience of darkness is more easily accessed if we begin to map it out during lighter times. We can’t just step onto someone else’s path when the going gets tough and expect it to take us where we want to go.

In my life, embracing the most awful, even just as a possibility, has been remedy enough to see me through the darkest days. When I have faced the worst threat and done everything possible to mitigate it, at some point, I have recognised that despite my best efforts, the worst may happen. As I have made peace with the possibility, I have noticed a shift away from fear to courage. The shift away from the false hope that everything will turn out just fine to the acceptance of what-will-be-will-be, without falling into hopelessness, is subtle. So subtle it’s barely perceptible. It’s neither the opposite of the 'The Secret" kind of hopeful, nor the same as the resignation and depression of hopelessness.

Rather than the bitter pill of hope, I prefer a homeopathic dosage of suffering to stimulate the soul to generate its own healing for the pain of loss.

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