Recently my friend Christina shared this Henri Nouwen quote:
“Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things –the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on – will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.”
I’m a perpetual optimist; always looking up and forward to something, be it a change in seasons or the weekend (…or morning coffee). While optimism can coax us away from the present moment and contentment, for the most part it’s served me well. Until now. I’ve come to the uncomfortable and embarrassing conclusion that I’ve been an optimist only because my life has been relatively charmed. I’m optimistic about the future because things have gone according to plan. This undergirding confidence stemmed from a pattern: I envisioned something, I worked hard for it, and the dream materialized.
That was the formula, until the formula stopped working. As disappointment and brokenness crop up around me – in my own life, in the lives of friends, in this chaotic world – optimism appears increasingly naïve. It’s dangerous to be an optimist in a world where things go very wrong. It’s disappointing to assume things will work themselves out for the best, because they don’t. Just look at 2014.
The line between optimism and cynicism is thin and unsteady as a tightrope: tread one step too far and you might land in a very disillusioned place. If optimism is your answer, too many disappointments will make you the hardest cynic. And before you stop reading because this is such a downer post, wait! Optimism disappoints, yes. I’ve been disappointed lately. But here’s the thing: hope doesn’t. Knowing this distinction now, I will choose hope over optimism every last time.
Back to Nouwen’s quote, and why it feels like the answer to a riddle. I found it so relieving to accept things don’t have to go my way in order to maintain huge hope. “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness,” writes Flannery O’Connor. (That woman!) She’s on to something. Optimism can be a foolish sentimentality, morphing so quickly into cynicism or bitterness. Hope, conversely, is nearly synonymous with trust – an active choice to lean on God’s good promises, immaterial as they may be.
Hope is hard to feel. It’s not a natural, emotional upwelling brought on by promising circumstances. But it’s bedrock and sure in a wild and scary life. And because I wouldn’t be using my Input skillz if I didn’t wedge too many quotes in a single post, here’s one more:
“The resurrection of Christ means everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.” - Tim Keller
I can’t wait for all our sad pieces to somehow coalesce and become untrue; I can’t wait for when everything good and whole is not just true but our reality. It’s coming–that’s a promise. Hope doesn’t disappoint.