I have traditionally thought of hope as a perky feeling filled with trust that all will be well. If so, it is a very limited perspective. Thomas Merton’s perspective is a bit different: “Hope . . . is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved. It springs out of nothingness, completely free. But to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness. And there we meet hope most perfectly, when we are stripped of our own confidence, our own strength, when we almost no longer exist.” —THOMAS MERTON, “THE NEW MAN”
I like this framework so much better than the one I labored under for years. It doesn’t sound particularly sellable to a large audience – this idea that hope springs up as a gift from God in our most desperate moments. But I believe this is true. A few months ago I took a call to go meet a man in a local Emergency Room who had overdosed and decided to accept the police officer’s suggestion of treatment versus incarceration. As a volunteer, my work is to take those “yes” responses to recovery and turn them into a tangible treatment program. When I arrived on the scene he was asleep, his body battered and worn out from his near death experience. Just hours before this man had literally died, was revived and returned to the land of the living. I sat in a bedside chair to wait. The chair was positioned at the foot of the bed of cubicle 28. As I sat vigil, I became distinctly aware of his feet clad in mud caked work boots. Sturdy but worn, these shoes served this homeless man well during the cold winter Richmond nights. I imagined he didn’t work in the traditional sense; all evidence indicated he scrambled on a daily basis to find the resources to feed his drug habit. I sat. He slept. I watched the boots.
Within a few minutes I could imagine these boots walking into a treatment facility where he would be safer, warmer, better nourished than he had been in years and given the treatment he needed. I felt a surge of hope. But this hope was not the equivalent of optimism, for the chances that he would stay were slim. The chronically homeless sometimes resist living in a group environment like a treatment facility. My hope wasn’t the hope of a naive early comer to the field of addiction recovery. I sat and asked myself why I was hopeful in light of all I knew about this man’s chances and I realized that my hope was so much bigger than this one pitiful, wretched soul. I had a renewed sense of hope by watching all the individuals who had come to this man’s rescue even though he didn’t much look like there was much to save. The police, the ER staff, the many people who make it possible for our team at the Virginia Recovery Foundation to provide treatment for anyone who asks – even if the addict is out of funding. I thought about the donors who fund projects like this and our other ministry efforts, my fellow recovery advocates who take these calls, and yes, even the possibility that these boots might walk right into treatment and come out eventually on the feet of a changed man.
Ultimately, that is not how the story ended. He did find shelter from the cold, a few days of good nutritious meals, hot showers and a warm bed to occupy. But after a week of treatment he left to take up his place on the streets. Hope for me realizes that one week is better than none and no effort is wasted. He knows now where help is located and could choose to return.
Hope is a gift.