When Hope is Weak

When you’ve had as many cats as we have, you’ve seen cats get sick. A sick cat is a sorry sight. It creeps about with sunken body and head hung low. It stops making the Contented Cat Face. It hunches there, listless and still, waiting.

Sick Cat1

Sometimes the cat gets better. Its eyes clear; it starts eating and drinking and taking an interest again. When you pet the cat, it presses against your hand to get in a really good rub. It narrows its eyes to slits and rounds its back in comfort. A convalescent cat is as happy and grateful as any human recovering from a bad illness and just as wonderful to see.

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And sometimes the cat dies. Its fur and skin grow cold. The color recedes from its gums, leaving them pale and grey. Its eyes dull. It sinks into a stupor. Occasionally it rallies and fights for a while, meowing desperately, arching its back, scrabbling at the floor with its paws. Its breathing is shallow but strained; existence is hard labor. But it holds on.

For hours on Christmas Eve I watched a young cat slowly die. Several times I truly thought he was getting better, but he wasn’t. When my husband got home he took the cat outside with his .22 and ended it.

A recent remark from a friend got me thinking about hope, about how hard it is to let go even when you’re all but certain it’s in vain. It dwindles to a hard little kernel that lodges in your mind and will not move. Hope is part expectation and part desire, and it’s not particular as to proportions. Expectation may shrivel to a dry husk while desire remains robust and green, and together they still add up to hope.

You can tell yourself every hour of every day how unlikely you are to get what you want, but you cannot by an act of will stop the wanting. The most meager grain of expectation is enough to keep hope alive, and desire can actually nurture expectation, doing violence to intellect.

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The trouble is that we can’t predict the future. If we could, then hope would be neither needful nor possible. We’re caught in the uncertainty between fulfillment and disappointment, and there’s no way out but through.

I think that faint hope is like a little cat that’s sick. It might make it and it might not. And the tension of watching and wondering is a terrible, terrible thing. Even when it seems that the most merciful thing to do would be to kill it, you can’t, because you can’t willfully end hope without ending yourself. The most you might manage is to stifle it, and if you make a habit of that you’ll end up like what C.S. Lewis called the Disillusioned “Sensible Man.” Though priggish and repressed, such a man “rubs along fairly comfortably” without being a nuisance to society. According to Lewis, such a state “would be the best line we could take if man did not live forever.”

Lewis continues,

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same. (Mere Christianity)

Is this any help for the one who is suffering not from the failure of earthly things to satisfy ineffable desires but rather from a simple inability to get those earthly things which he so badly wants? I think so–I hope so. If nothing else, it affirms hope itself as a virtue. Continuing to hope past the point of pragmatism can make us feel foolish and embarrassed. It shouldn’t. Hope and folly are not the same thing. We may or may not get the thing we want, but while we wait we can take comfort in knowing there are other, better things awaiting us whose fulfillment is sure.

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the LORD more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Psalm 130:5,6

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