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!