Cheap Hope

Consider that most famous trio of Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love. One of the three seems a good deal less virtuous than the others. Faith is hard work — even the most devoted Protestants like to say that faith is a muscle that needs exercising. Its essence is belief, and belief in the midst of a culture that scorns it is not easy. All the more so of love, or “charity” to use the King James Bible’s elegant language. Jesus commanded that his followers must love their enemies, open doors to them, lay down their lives for them. No one thinks that is easy.

Hope seems different: like one of those Sesame Street games where they put up pictures of a square, a circle, and a giraffe, then ask which one doesn’t belong. Hope conjures thoughts of better days to come and of a better place than this. Embracing the promise of better times and better climes seems natural. Easy. Who doesn’t want hope?

Actually, I don’t. This requires a brief autobiographical detour. When I was seventeen a congenital back problem flared up, and I had my first surgery, a fusion. Twenty-four years later it flared up again; after a year-and-a-half of increasing pain, I had another fusion. (There is one benefit of multiple back surgeries. One’s posture improves — standing straight is pretty much the only option.) The next six months were much better. Then one day in December 2001, I was late for a meeting with a law-school colleague and started jogging between two buildings to save a little time. Something happened that day; ever since I have felt steadily worse. Today, I’m in a great deal of pain, all the time. I can’t stand, walk, or sit upright without putting myself in agony. I move around in a wheelchair. Pain is my first sensation when I wake up in the morning, and my last thought as I drift off to sleep at night, my faithful and ever-present companion.

It sounds awful, and it is. It also sounds intolerable, but it isn’t — and the reason brings us back to hope.

A little more autobiography: Beginning about eighteen months ago, my doctors turned more pessimistic. I started to hear not “We’ll fix this,” but “You need to learn to live with it.” And a surprising thing happened: I did learn to live with it. I went to work, taught my classes, argued with my colleagues at faculty meetings, even did some writing. Life returned. Then, about two months ago, I had a pair of tests that revealed three surgically correctable problems the doctors hadn’t seen before. Now my surgeons recommend another, more extensive fusion, which (they say) offers some promise of substantial pain relief. Very good news, you might think. But its effect has been anything but good: ever since I’ve heard this diagnosis, the pain level has been sharply higher. Hope hurts. The promise of better days has, for me, brought a large measure of agony to these days.

That story initially struck me as strange, but I’m told it is fairly common. Those of us who live with chronic pain develop skills for coping with it, just as (I’m guessing here) those who are blind learn to listen better than the rest of us. I can’t quite describe the mental process, but it goes something like this: when I get up in the morning, I take the pain, put it in a small, dark room, and shut the door. I live my life outside that room. Every hour or two the door pops open and I repeat the process. Since receiving my hopeful diagnosis, the door won’t stay closed. My mental exercise doesn’t work anymore. The door is always ajar, and pain and darkness flood the rooms where life is lived.

Most of us, most of the time, think of health as the absence of pain. But that gets it backward; pain is the absence of health: not the presence of something bad but the absence of something good. The word “disability” gets it right — it is the lack of an ability others have. There is much in the disability-rights movement that I applaud, but not its use of language. “Differently abled” does violence to the truth. I do indeed have a different set of abilities than most people who are healthier (and people with more experience in wheelchairs have those different abilities in much greater measure than I) — but I’d trade my abilities for theirs in a heartbeat, because I lack something they have.

Now we are in a position to see why hope hurts. If the pain must always be with me, if the doctors can do nothing for me, then for me, health no longer exists. I barely remember what it felt like to awaken, stand, and stretch with no consciousness of my lower back. That world ended; this is my world now. And if I can shut out the world of long walks and tennis games, if I can make it vanish, a large fraction of my pain vanishes with it. One cannot feel the absence of a nonexistent thing. Let the thing become real again, and its absence stings.

Of course, it doesn’t work perfectly. Even in my most pessimistic moods, I can’t make the pain disappear altogether. But the tendency is surprisingly strong. Hopelessness is a very good pain-management strategy. Norman Vincent Peale had it all wrong: pessimism is power. And that truth applies to a great deal more than the lumbar region of the spine.

For Christians, hope is tied up with heaven: the place where all tears are dried, where mourning is no more, where pain cannot enter. Everlasting joy: who would not long for that? Ah, but everlasting joy is then, and pain is now. And the greater the joy — the bigger the gap between life as it will one day be lived in Aslan’s Country and life in the here and now — the worse the pain. If pain really is a lack of health, a moment’s contemplation of heaven reveals that I am a great deal sicker than my doctors believe. Even a brief thought of life in the Father’s presence shines a light on the empty spaces in this life, on the terrible lacks that characterize life in this often-terrible world.

As with so many things, C. S. Lewis put it better than anyone else: we are content to eat mud-pies when a great feast awaits. It is not hard to see why. The feast is not quite here, not quite yet. There are hints, morsels that promise a meal the like of which no one has tasted, but the full table is for another life. The mud-pies are here, now, and they taste better when the feast disappears. Think of the dwarfs in the stable near the end of The Last Battle. They could see none of the good things Aslan had set before them, and they contentedly grappled with one another in the muck.

This world offers us many mud-pies; sometimes we must eat. How easy it is to say, let’s make the best of it. The pies will taste better if I can put the great feast — the wedding feast of the Lamb, the party that will go on and on, the love song that has no end — out of my mind. But that is the one thing I must never do. Not that we are called to be ascetics; this life is not all mud-pies. Lewis also wrote that our lives are a journey, and along the way lie some lovely inns for us to enjoy. Enjoying them is good and right. But we must never mistake the inns for the home that lies at the journey’s end. The trip may be painful — indeed, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, pain is a certainty. And the inns may be comfortable. It is very, very tempting to stay. But we must move on.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who knew about painful journeys, famously (and scathingly) wrote of “cheap grace.” Ours may be an age of cheap hope, where horizons are small and ambitions petty, where pain is always held in check, where the doors to our small dark rooms are sealed shut. Like many others, I have loved following Frodo and Sam on their ten-hour journey across Middle Earth the past two years. I wonder, though, how many have watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy and marveled at the vision of lives lived in pursuit of honor and justice rather than income and professional standing. We tend to keep our hopes smaller than that and safely distant from the things that touch our hearts. I know I was made for something better; it is part of my wiring. But I don’t want to believe I was made for something much better. Easier to think that a nicer job or house or a good book review (especially a good book review) would satisfy. Lack of those things hurts a good deal less than lack of joy. Or of the One who spreads it out like a blanket.

Jesus said to count the cost. I once thought I understood that concept well: cost is what I give up, what I can’t do that I wish I could. Hope carries a different cost: the pain we take on, the longing that hurts so much because the thing longed for is so very good. That cost is high, because the lack is massive. But if the feast is real, even though we cannot yet taste it, the price must be paid

Hope does hurt, terribly. But no one in my circumstances would choose the wheelchair and the pain medications over even a small chance at health. I wonder, though, how often I have made that same unimaginably shortsighted choice: not to hope, and so not to feel the sting of the joy I lack. A life lived in search of that joy is bound to hurt, and the pain will sometimes seem unbearable: worse than the worst a bad back can produce. Still, it is surely a larger and more worthy life than that of Lewis’ dwarfs eating muddy food. Eyes turned upward may sting, for the sun is bright. But those who walk with heads down see little. Better to look up.

As I’ve seen many times the past few years, pain evokes pity. I’ve felt it for friends who suffered, as my friends have felt it for me. But I suspect my friends and I have it backward. Pity is due not to those who feel pain, but to those who don’t. Not to those who have counted the cost and paid up, but to those who cannot count because they do not see.

Time to check out of the inn. It’s daylight, and a hard journey awaits.

Dr. William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School, passed away in 2011 after teaching for over a decade at both Harvard Law and the University of Virginia Law School and fighting a three year battle with colon cancer. After the writing of this essay in December 2004, Professor Stuntz did indeed have the back surgery he mentions here. He was grateful to be up and walking again, although he still lived and struggled with pain — and with hope.

Stuntz's books, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice and The Political Heart of Criminal Procedure: Essays on Themes of William J. Stuntz were published posthumously and are both now available in paperback. Follow these links to read more about the impact of Professor Stuntz on his students and colleagues as well as legal professionals. This interview with Dr. Stuntz gives insight as to his faith and thoughtfulness. May we all continue to do our duty and honor God well.


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