“Despair is a free man, hope is a slave”

That line is quoted in two of L.M. Montgomery’s works. She is most famous for writing the Anne of Green Gables series. I loved her books when I was a girl, but it’s been years since I’ve read them — though I know I’d still enjoy them. This particular line is given as an unattributed quotation, as if the author, or the person speaking the line took for granted that the reader would recognize the work (such as “Four-score and seven years ago…” needs no attribution); or else that the original author’s name has been lost in the mists of time.

Reading that quote always made me think, though. It seems false; backwards. It should be hope that is free, not despair! Yet the more I ponder it, the more I see that there is some truth in it. The person who has given up hope is no longer chained to that hope, with all that that entails. Take a sports game, as an example — I’ll pick hockey, since that’s my husband’s favorite sport. When the game is tied in the 3rd period, and it’s heading into overtime, all the people on both sides of the game are glued to their seats. They ain’t leavin’! They’re staying another hour, even though it’s going to cost them extra to pay their children’s babysitter to fall asleep on the couch; even though they’re going to be exhausted driving home at such a late hour and might even fall asleep at the wheel; even though they’re going to feel horrible in the morning after not having gotten enough sleep but still having to function. Contrast that to a game that is a rout — heading into the 3rd period, one team is winning by 5 points or more (which is a lot for hockey, if you’re not familiar with it — it’s nothing for basketball or football, but is nearly insurmountable for hockey), and what do you see? You see people from the losing team especially (but perhaps also from the winning team) streaming out of their seats, hoping to beat the traffic snarl that always erupts when thousands of people leave a stadium at once. They’re free from the shackles of the game — free to go home at a reasonable hour, and get a full night’s sleep, unencumbered by what is going on inside the stadium.

I think about King David in the Bible — surely you’re at least familiar with the story of David and Goliath, even if you’re not Christian or Jewish — it’s the same man, grown up. One time a prophet came to him to tell him that his child (which was conceived in adultery, and led to the death of the woman’s husband, a commander in David’s army), was surely going to die. David mourned, repented, wept, refused to eat or drink anything, wouldn’t change his clothes or even go to his bed. Then the child died, and the servants were scared to tell him the child was dead, for fear that he would hurt himself or something — if he would mourn that badly while the child was still alive, after all, what might he do when he found out the child was dead?? Yet, when they told him, David got up, washed himself, changed his clothes, and had something to eat. When questioned about it, he answered, “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” His hope for mercy kept him in mourning and weeping; but when that hope was dead, along with his son, he was freed to put the incident behind him and move on. No amount of fasting or crying would bring his son back from the grave, but “while there’s life, there’s hope.” And where there is hope, there is the drive to do something.

For example, take a team of doctors and nurses in the ER — a person comes in, perhaps with a heart attack, or a gunshot wound, or a knife sticking out of his chest. While the doctors have a hope of saving this person, they work feverishly trying to stabilize him, to fix his injuries, to prevent his death. If the man’s vital signs are touch-and-go for hours, they slave over him for hours. But once they despair, once they realize that they cannot help him, that their efforts are in vain, their work ceases. They are freed up from working on this person.

When I first began spotting in this pregnancy, with that first faint pink smear on the toilet paper, I thought, “Well, that’s it! I’m having a miscarriage, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” I gave up hope. Then when the spotting stopped, hope resumed. In those few minutes of despair, I thought of the changes that I would not have to make, and the changes I would be able to make. For instance, while pregnant, I would not count calories, nor try to cut any calories; if I had a miscarriage, I could continue trying to lose this excess weight. If I remained pregnant, I would need to buy baby clothes and other things for the baby; if I had a miscarriage, I wouldn’t. If I remained pregnant, I would take my prenatal vitamins, and try to eat a very healthy diet both for myself and for my baby; if I had a miscarriage, I would be freed from worrying about anencephaly, or “eating for two,” and would only need to eat healthily for myself. Then several days later, with the red bleeding, I again despaired, thinking “red is a bad sign; there is no hope”; and again, my thoughts turned to what I would and would not do. Then, that, too, stopped; and hope resumed.

Now, the bleeding — it’s not spotting, it’s bleeding — has returned. Red and a lot of it. It’s not quite as heavy as a period (and my breasts are still sensitive, which is a good indication, perhaps), but bleeding is not exactly a good sign. And again, I feel the truth of the saying, “Despair is a free man, hope is a slave.” I still pray that everything is okay with this baby; but the less hope I have, the more resigned I am to the likelihood that this is actually a miscarriage. The more hope I have, the more I feel required to do all the “good things” that “good mommies” do when they’re pregnant. The more despair I have, the more free I feel to be “bad”. Or just to relax a bit, and run up and down stairs again, and pick up my children for a bear-hug and help my husband drag in the Christmas tree! Little things like that.

Yes, “Despair is a free man, hope is a slave.” Yet, the hope that makes a “slave” of me is the hope of a healthy baby at the end of several more months — well worth any “shackles” that bind me — so, vive la slavery!


9 Responses

  1. Praying for you, my friend, and for baby… I’m so sorry this pregnancy has been such an up-and-down unsure sort of thing. Please keep us posted.

    Have you seen your midwife? Or a consulting physician? With this past pregnancy, sometime around 5 weeks I lost pregnancy symptoms (which for me = nausea) and I was so stressed about needing to know that I scheduled an ultrasound (even though I’m not crazy about them) in order to find out. I didn’t go through with it b/c my pregnancy symptoms returned before my appointment, but I think I would have preferred knowing if things had continued that way. However, whatever works for you is best!!

    Definitely know what you mean about the quote – at first it seems wrong, but then it makes sense.


  2. Hey there, Kathy! I can completely relate to what you are going through. I experienced my first miscarriage this past year. It is a roller coaster of fear, denial, hope, and dread. I am very sorry that you are spotting, and I pray that this is NOT evidence of a miscarriage. Rather, I pray that there is a healthy little one growing inside.

    I am a member of MOMYS.com, on which there are MANY stories of bleeding in pg with healthy baby as outcome. There is even a website dedicated to stories to give hope to those that are spotting and or bleeding.

    So, bound yourself with hope until there is an end! We all know that ultimately, God is in control, but we can still allow our hearts to move toward hope.

    Blessings to you,
    Rebecca (Hatfield) Young

  3. I have been there so many times this year; I had four miscarriages in five months between May and October.

    I am praying for the best for you and the babe.

  4. I had many years of infertility and several miscarriages and got to the point where I just assumed that things would not work out. That was much, much easier than hoping and then getting crushed again. So I really get where you are coming from.

    I found this article helpful: http://pregnancyandbaby.sheknows.com/pregnancy/baby/Easing-the-anxiety-of-pregnancy-after-miscarriage-5423.htm

    Will be thinking of you and hoping for the best for you.

  5. L. M. Montgomery dealt with despair and mental illnesses her whole life. Her husband had a severe mental illness, and she herself struggled with depression, ultimately leading to her suicide. Her grand daughter shared this family secret a year or two ago. There is some background into why she may have felt that way. Allowing ourselves to despair may feel free at times, but hope really is the true freedom, even with all the work entailed. Hope in Christ especially will set us free.

    • Wow, I had never heard of that! I’ve not read much *about* L.M. Montgomery, although I have read many of her works (all the Anne books, plus many more).

      I think about Anne’s statement about “being in the depths of despair,” and asking Marilla, “Have you ever been in the depths of despair?” Marilla answered, “No, I have not. To despair is to turn your back on God!”

      You’re right, about hope in Christ. My point was not saying that hope is wrong; but that when one has hope, one is bound by that hope to certain actions. And “despair” sets you free from those actions. That can be for good or for bad. Most if not all of the examples of “the slavery of hope” showed that the actions necessitated by hope are good things — trying to save a man’s life, praying for the life or health of your child, etc.

      It is a conditionally true statement. One might also take the reverse statement that “hope is a free man, and despair is a slave”, because the things that hope binds you to (the above-mentioned examples of doing good), are freeing things in and of themselves; while despair binds you to courses of action that might be even self-destructive. You despair that you’ll ever get out of debt, so you kill yourself. Sure, you’re “free” from your debt, but what kind of “freedom” is that?

      Your comment made me think of one of the epistles Paul wrote when he was in prison — I forget exactly how it goes, but referencing his “bonds” or his “chains,” (or perhaps, it was not — perhaps it was writing to a church that contained members who were slaves or bond-men) — anyway, he says, that if you’re a “free” man, as society sees it, you are Christ’s bond-slave; while if you’re a “slave”, bound and shackled, unable to do what you want, you are actually Christ’s free-man.

      “Hope really is the true freedom” — yes, indeed.

      • I knew you would know what I meant. I wanted to say more about your present situation, to empathize with you, but it wasn’t coming out right, so I just left it at what I wrote above. I too love L.M. Montgomery’s books, and I believe she gave so much to the world, even amidst her personal trials.

        I hope you are doing okay.

  6. I’m so sorry to hear you are still experiencing pregnancy issues, I really hope they resolve themselves. I think if this was me I would just want it resolved, either way, so that it would stop being such a rollercoaster. I understand your post, but I think something you are forgetting, and that birthathomemom and your subsequent reply touched on is: its not always a ‘bad’ thing to be a slave. We as Americans see slavery as a racial thing with whips, chains, torn families, and a very bad master/slave relationship. But the term ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ simply implies that you belong to something. We are fallible humans, to belong to something can be a very good thing, it can give us outside influences to fall back on, help in times of need, provide care when we are unable to do so under our own power etc. Some things it is not good to be a slave too (money or pornography for instance) but being a slave to Christ (above all) is good, even being a slave to another human is not inheirently (sp?) bad. In the Bible the Jews were allowed slaves, they were to offer to free them after 7 years of service and, if the slave wanted to stay with the family, they were made a slave to that family for life. If we rid ourselves of the cultural, ingrained thoughts/feelings we have on slavery because we are most familiar with American slavery (or I suppose European slavery), we are free to accept that belonging to someone (or something) is a valid social standing, specifically under certain circumstances or given certain societies. In a very real way I am a slave to my husband, I acknowledge him as my legal and religious rightfull head of household, expect that he will take care of me, and, in return, abide by his wishes. (no, he’s not a dictator, as the Bible says ‘husbands consider first the wife’, following my husband’s lead should never be counter to my needs, as he is called to always put my needs first, but it may be counter to my wants on occassion) I am also a slave to God, and very happy to belong to Him. One of my favorite verses in the whole Bible is “You are bought with a price, you are not your own” I don’t have the ability to look it up right now, I think its in Romans. To the world, it is better to be a miserable ‘free’ man than a happy slave. To those who know how liberating it can be to acknowledge you are a fallen human that CANT DO EVERYTHING, being a slave to something greater is so much better than languishing in egotistical misery. (to preempt those about to call me a misogynistic idiot trying to drag back the cause of women to the stone age for abiding by the Biblical command to obey my husband as my head…I’m a very intelligent, college educated, willful, self-capable, self-able woman who is very capable of calling my husband to task if he strays from HIS Biblical command, and I’m very happy to be ‘pregnance, barefoot, and in the kitchen’!)

  7. An interesting read! FYI, the line quoted by Lucy Maude Montgomery is apparently from a poem called The Freeman by Ellen Glasgow.

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