Friday, 2 January 2009

Finding hope in the most unlikely of places

It's easy to despair - to lose all hope, and begin to question the meaning of our lives, and the world we live in. There are times when we're challenged to the core of our being. Moments that cause us to question the purpose of our existence. Whether it's bereavement, rejection, conflict, sickness or loneliness, at these moments we suffer, as we struggle to find the strength we need to carry on.

Some turn to religion for this strength. And it can help, if it provides answers and offers hope. But what if, like me, you are not religious? Who can you turn to if you don't have religious faith?

Two years ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I was told that I would need chemotherapy. I think that I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life before. But I found the hope and strength I needed to get through it from a place that I never expected.

Chemotherapy is normally pumped into your body through a needle. The nurses hook you up to a machine, and leave you sitting there for an hour or so until you're done. It's poison that they're pumping into your veins. This doesn't hurt at the time, but it can make you feel unwell afterwards, and a week later, just when you're starting to recover, the nurses will pump more of the stuff into you.

And so we all sit together, me and my fellow cancer patients, in a big room, staring at each other as the pumps do their work. We're all in the same boat. You have to be pretty sick to need this stuff. We're all very scared, but you wouldn't know it to look at us there together.

Because in that room - the medical day unit - there is a kind of dignity, camaraderie and compassion that I don't think I've ever experienced in my life before. Everyone is remarkably brave and composed, considering the circumstances, and I realized at the time that we were all drawing this strength from each other. From strangers. All it took was for us to sit together, and take our medicine together. Providing each other with this companionship cost us nothing, but helped us more than I can say.

Looking back, I realize that these are the times and places where we can find hope - regardless of whether we have religious faith. This free and willing exchange of kindness between strangers, in the worst of situations, tells us everything that we need to know about the true value and meaning of the human condition. Hope needn't be a supernatural force from above. It's something we share between us, and the best place to look for it is in the kindness of strangers.