Optimism vs. Hope, in a Pandemic

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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Where would you put yourself on the optimism/pessimism spectrum? I suppose I land just slightly on the optimistic side, though with serious bouts of pessimism thrown in now and again. Among my friends there is at least one eternal pessimist (with an astonishing capacity to see the worst in every situation) and a few who seem born entirely to optimism (forever confident things will be just fine).

Perhaps we all slide along the continuum, depending on circumstances, but our optimism quotient also seems a fairly fixed personality trait. You occupy some place on this spectrum and there’s not much you can do to change that. Maybe it’s pessimistic of me to say that!

But let’s make this a little more concrete by asking about our present pandemic moment. Are you optimistic we have finally flattened the curve? Are you confident there will soon be effective treatments for COVID-19? That we might see a vaccine within the year? Get back to something approaching normal life in the next two years?

The truth is, it’s hard to live without optimism. A quick review of psychological studies reminds us that optimistic people tend to have a higher quality of life; that optimism corresponds with mental, physical and social wellbeing. Further, those who tend toward optimism are also more likely to be persistent and assured in pursuing goals for the future. Even the pessimists among us can usually see the benefits of a positive posture toward the future.

God’s love in uncertain times

In the face of life’s struggles and challenges, and in this pandemic context, optimism can be a gift. It is a gift. Our wellbeing in the present requires that we be able to imagine a future that is different from our present experience of social isolation, fear and suffering. Optimism has a sustaining quality; optimism means strength, imagination and confidence in the present moment.

I want to note, however, the difference between optimism and hope. We often use these words interchangeably but there is a profound difference, particularly from the perspective of Christian faith. We can think about this difference with the help of Romans 5:5, where the Apostle declares that “hope does not disappoint.” This could be paraphrased as “hope won’t leave us in the lurch” or “hope can’t be defeated by circumstances.” For Paul, hope doesn’t disappoint because “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” To be a hopeful person is to be one who faces the future with the deeply personal knowledge of God’s love – God’s love for the world and for me!

To personify this: Optimism is confident there will be a solution to our present challenges – that there will be a vaccine or an effective treatment. That life will get back to normal. Hope, on the other hand, knows that even if there is no vaccine or treatment, we belong to the God who is love. Although the future remains uncertain, God’s love for us abides. Always.

This approach to optimism and hope doesn’t require that we set them in opposition to each other. Rather, as a colleague recently reminded me, optimism is encompassed by hope. If we think of this as a Venn diagram, hope would be large circle that holds the smaller circle of optimism within itself. Even if optimism doesn’t give us everything we need in terms of assurance for the future, optimism helps us flourish. And where our optimism is rewarded, God’s love is on display.

Not only is our optimism enclosed within the broad goodness of hope. Astonishingly, our pessimism is as well. In our imagined Venn diagram, the circle of pessimism is similarly enclosed within the larger circle of hope. In other words, hope is strong enough, and the love of God enduring enough, to create room for both our optimism and our pessimism. Wherever we are on the optimism spectrum, hope won’t disappoint.

 

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