Hope is as necessary to life as air itself. It is what an 8-year-old holds on to while clutching her teddy bear, laying in a hospital bed at St. Jude. It is the one thing that gives a young married couple the energy to work through the fight they had last night. Hope is that other-worldly strength that carries us into the unknown.
Without hope, we are lost.
Leon was just 15 when he gave up on hope. Which is not like your normal teenager full of life and full of dreams and full of himself. Leon’s tank was empty. He was raised by a single mom who got unexplainably sick. They didn’t have any money or insurance for doctors, and by the time they got desperate for help it was too late. Cancer took her way too soon.
He never really knew his dad. He had foggy memories that were incomplete. When he was young, his mama would tell him that his dad was sick and had to go away to get better. No one ever told him the full story, but on his own he put the pieces together. He could remember the screaming and the fights that he heard from under the covers in his bedroom. The smell of alcohol and empty bottles sitting around the house told him all he needed to know.
One of the reasons Leon gave up is that everyone around him gave up on him. His teachers so much as told him that he’d never amount to anything. He got kicked off the baseball team. His grades were in the toilet. He got suspended so many times that the hole he fell into was like a bottomless pit. No way out, he thought. He quit school on his 16th birthday.
When he turned 18 he got arrested on his first DUI. At 19 he spent a few nights in jail for simple battery. He was angry. He didn’t want to fight, but he just didn’t seem to know how not to fight.
At 23 he met a girl whom he thought was going to change his life. It turned out that she was just as troubled as he was. He got up one morning and she was gone. Her clothes cleaned out. The picture of the two of them cut up into little pieces scattered on the kitchen table. She just disappeared and he never heard from her again.
By the time Leon was 35, he was convinced that he was a loser. He honestly didn’t know how he had lasted this long. His thoughts were so dark it scared him. He had never held a job for more than a year. He was deep in debt. His friends had moved on with their lives. Jobs. Family. The perfect suburban dream. Something he didn’t have.
The absence of hope can bring a man down. Hard. So hard he feels like everything he touches turns sour. Every dream evaporates. Every reason he can think of to get out of bed just doesn’t seem to be enough to convince him to keep trying.
But on his good days, Leon does try. It was a hot summer afternoon when he summoned up the courage to walk into Howard’s Hardware to ask for a job. He hadn’t shaved for several weeks. Keeping up appearances had not been on the top of Leon’s list for while now. He was used to hearing “no” so much that he just assumed that a shave would make no difference.
Mr. Harland Howard took a long look at the young man in front of him. What he saw reminded him of someone he once knew. It wasn’t the color of Leon’s hair or the set of his chin or the way he bit at his lower lip. It was the look inside Leon’s eyes that dug at a memory Mr. Harland had tried to forget.
You see, Mr. Harland saw a younger version of himself behind those empty and desperate eyes. He knew exactly what hopelessness looked like. His own life had not been a bed of roses, and once he got his feet on solid ground, he promised himself that if he ever had the chance he would return the favor that had been given him.
So, he hired Leon. Some of the other guys in the store talked among themselves about what a bad idea this was. They didn’t trust Leon. They knew Leon. One of them went to school with Leon.
Leon always seemed to teeter on the edge of self-destruction with most of his jobs. He was never late, but he missed a lot of days. He made mistakes. He didn’t get along well with the other guys. He knew what they thought of him. He was convinced that this would be just another dead-end job that would slip through his fingers.
“Why do you put up with Leon?” This was the question Mr. Harland got from most anybody who had an opinion.
“Because everybody needs somebody who believes in them.” This was his standard answer. The naysayers didn’t get it. Most of them thought that Leon was a big waste of time. But not Mr. Harland.
The turning point for the hopeless is having someone else come along who has enough hope of their own to share. If misery and despair are the killers of hope, having someone in your corner who doesn’t give up on you is what gives hope a second chance. It can be almost like a second birth.
It wasn’t much, but every now and then Mr. Harland would say to Leon, “I’ve got high hopes for you. I can see something in you that maybe you don’t see.” And that’s all he would say.
Leon didn’t know exactly how to take that. He wasn’t sure what it meant. But he liked how it made him feel.
A year went by, and Leon was surprised that he hadn’t been fired by now. Working at the hardware store. He was still facing some hard times. The past doesn’t go away overnight. But he was beginning to think about life with a new perspective. He wouldn’t have put it in these words, but he was starting to have hope again.
To be confident in yourself is a gift that most of us take for granted. Some of us are just wired for life. Good things come so easy that we can’t understand why everyone is not like us. Our outlook is that if everyone would just try hard enough, if everyone would just buckle down and get with it, then everyone would be just fine.
But life is hard. The course of a man’s life is always vulnerable to disappointment. Some circumstances are forced on you. You get handed one bad deck of cards after another, and pretty soon you stop playing the game altogether.
Leon has a long way to go. But because one man refused to give up on him, he has a fighting chance.
Believe it or not, miracles do happen. Hope still lives. Life can change.
All you have to do is believe in someone who needs a reason to hope.