It’s not the despair, it’s the hope

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There’s a comedy with John Cleese that has a great line in it. At a point in the story when the main character is almost ready to give up, he says, “it’s not the despair Laura, I can cope with the despair, it’s the hope.” By which he means, if he could just give up on trying to get to the headmasters’ conference in Norwich, the aim of his quest, then he could relax and let go. The despair he would then feel would be bearable because he would no longer be fighting. I understand that feeling very well.

Poster from the movie clockwise

Illness is often characterised as a fight, we talk about fighting against cancer, fighting a disease, we even fight a cold. We congratulate people who ‘overcome’ an illness. In cancer wards there is often a bell to ring triumphantly at the end of treatment. We celebrate and see a victory in overcoming illness. Now don’t misunderstand me, of course it is brilliant when people get well, and we should celebrate that. There are definitely illnesses that respond to being fought against. I also know that the mind plays a big part in all illnesses, so positive attitudes help in getting well, whatever is wrong with us. But there are also illnesses that do not respond to fighting. There are illnesses actually made worse by fighting.

Have you ever seen or heard of a Chinese finger puzzle? It is a tube that goes over two fingers, one on each of two hands. You then try to pull your two fingers apart. The harder you pull, the tighter the tube grips them. This is because the tube is designed to compress onto your fingers as it pulls apart. The only way to remove it, is to stop pulling, stop fighting, to actually push back the other way and remove it. Another illustration would be sinking sand, struggling makes you sink deeper. There are things made worse by fighting and struggle, and that is true for several illnesses too, as I know from experience.

Chinese finger puzzle
As you pull fingers apart the puzzle/trap grips more

You can see that an illness like that makes you look like a quitter. Because the only way you improve is by resting, stopping, what appears to be giving up. The only way to improve at all is by not fighting it. It’s counter intuitive and contrary to the way of the world. We are brought up, especially as men in my era to be fighters. We are told to try hard, push forward, try and overcome. When we have a cold, everyone’s attitude is to ‘suck it up’ and carry on. So why not be like that with all illnesses.

Here’s the thing, I am, and I was a fighter. I was first ill in 1990 and I carried on working, fighting, ignoring the illness. It’s both the advice I was given and the type of personality type I am. The effect on me was to make me worse and worse. I was physically strong, oh yes and often stupid. In the 1980’s I loaded a moving van with all our family’s possessions single handed, upright piano and all! There was no tail lift on the 7.5 tonne van, the only thing I could not load on my own was the washing machine. I had to get help. With the piano I put one end on the van and lifted the other up and slid it along. The washing machine was a dead weight and the van too high above me. I used to move car engines around without hoists. Yes, I was young and stupid. I am not showing off, I am saying I pushed myself beyond. When I had pleurisy in one lung, I drove, in agony, from South Wales to Scunthorpe on Christmas Eve so the family didn’t miss out on Christmas celebrations. Yes, I was in hospital that night, but I made the drive, in agony. Illness does not easily stop me. I am not a quitter.

Yet illness felled me. I could push no more. There are limits to human strength. I am not superhuman. I get so frustrated when people say I should pull my socks up or look at things differently or that illness can be overcome by positive attitude. These are such stupid comments. Not every illness can be overcome by attitude or strength. If positive thinking could make any difference, then I would never have been ill. If strength would help, I would not be ill. There are some things that just cannot be overcome by positive mental attitude or by fighting it. There comes a time when giving up really is the best and only option. Then at last you find rest and peace. Then at last healing can begin. I come back to my opening quote “It’s not the despair, I can cope with the despair, it’s the hope.”

Once you realise that all the fighting in the world is only making the illness worse, then coming to terms with it and learning to accept it really is the best way. Yes, you have to go through the despair of realising, ‘this is it.’ You may initially rail at the frustration of your limitations, but in the end, you can come to a place of peace and actually start to feel better. I have found that once I got through that period of angst and kicking against the limitations, I could make the most of my circumstances. Once I stopped wasting the little energy I had on anxiety and frustration, I could use it to enjoy the day.

If you have a similar illness that is not improved by fighting against, then learn from this. Stop fighting, accept your limitations and find the good things within your limitations. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to illnesses that you can fight against, but only the ones you can’t.

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