Monday, July 14, 2008

Questions about Courage, Hope, Faith, and Love

Many people have used the word “courageous” to describe us on this journey, especially referring to Susan. The affirmation is as deeply appreciated as it is confounding. We don’t feel particularly courageous or heroic or anything else. We often look at each other and wonder what other choices do we have? How else would anybody do this? Who would you not call courageous?

The dictionary defines courage as: Mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. OK, I guess we have developed some of that. But the question remains: what else would we be doing otherwise? What would people who lack courage do?

The opposite of courage is “cowardice” meaning: Lack of courage or resolution. Not much help there. But the term “lack of” does suggest that courage and cowardice can be displayed in degrees. So where are we really on the scale? What is “average” or “par” or “acceptable” on the courage scale? When does courageous behavior slack off enough to become cowardly? And who’s got the scale? What do cowards do?

In some sort of dangerous situation, cowards could be expected to run away. But running away doesn’t seem to be an option here – at least not for Susan. The closest thing to it is probably denying the reality of a situation. We probably all know people who seem to do that. But how do we know someone’s “denial” isn’t their sense of hope or faith – and isn’t that related to courage? Since we know that a person’s outlook affects his or her health and well-being, who gets to decide when someone’s hope (or faith) is out of whack or unrealistic? Is false hope “false” just because we think it is? Is clinging to life an act of cowardice or courage? What about letting go of life? Journeys like this present all kinds of courage vs. cowardice moments: getting the diagnosis (particularly if it’s incurable, like melanoma); deciding what clinical trials to try; deciding when the toxic results of treatment are worse than the end result of the disease; handling the side effects from damage already done; deciding when and how to prepare for the end of life. We’ve come to understand that the “right” answer is deeply personal. When Susan decided it was time for palliative care, our pastor Bill told Susan that she didn’t choose death, she chose life – and to be fully alive each moment of the day. This is why our friend Heidi said “Don’t let anyone tell you how to do this.”

In his famous first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about faith, hope, and love enduring forever. Indeed, these circumstances force one to contemplate things like spirituality, relationships, dying, death, and eternity. Our culture, particularly Western medical culture in the last century or so tends to regard death as a failure to survive. If that’s true, then aren’t we all doomed to failure? Susan’s oncologist points out that as much as we’d prefer to live to a healthy old age and die in our sleep, it only happens that way for some people. Who do you know that hasn’t experienced the unexpected, premature, or otherwise unfair, agonizing death of an acquaintance, a friend, or a loved one? Don’t we all have some experience with this reality? So why do we as a society consider death to be such a failure? Why do we tend to put off our reconciliation with the inevitable until it’s either undeniable or too late? Is that cowardice and avoidance of pain, or is it simply our instinct to survive?

One of the blessings of a long journey is coming to terms with all of this. It’s an evolutionary process that involves gathering as many facts as you can and blending them with as many possibilities as you can imagine and testing them with your own developing beliefs. We’ve had a lot of time to do that. Much has been written about this. A few of our favorites are referenced on this blog. In particular, the book “The Anatomy of Hope” has been helpful to us.

If you think we’re courageous, please don’t stop telling us. It really helps to hear it. But also ask yourself what you’d do or what you have done in similar circumstances. Wouldn’t it be similar? This is an amazing opportunity for us all to reflect on our humanness and be more aware of the meaning of life. I suppose it takes some courage, and a good deal of faith, hope, and love to face that.


Karen Main said...

Rob and Susan,
Your honest reflection on this blog has been inspirational to me. Thank you for allowing me to stay connected with you all even though I'm at a distance from you on a day-to-day basis.

Anonymous said...

Rob & Susan and of course your wonderful offspring, we wish you some happiness every day, courage in reflections of your accomplishements and esp. family.
And of course the power of prayer and connecting with God. We never know for sure if he is listening, but he knows our efforts. We never know when he will call us, so live every day to it's fullest, rest when tired, listen to good music and find things to be happy and laugh about. Hope your journey gets smoother.
With affection, Joan & Glenn Finney

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