Saturday, April 8, 2017


A week ago, I heard someone make a distinction between “optimism” and “hope,” and I've been pondering that difference, off and on, ever since. I’ve noticed that we often use the words “hope” and “optimism” interchangeably in everyday speech, for example, “As he began running the diagnostic tests, the engineer was hopeful that he would be able to pinpoint the problem.” The word “optimistic” would fit just as well in this case.  

Just now I Googled “optimism versus  hope” and found lots of different approaches. A counselling psychologist, a rabbi, and an educational leadership instructor each had their own definitions and made their own distinctions between the two ideas. The following reflection includes, along with my own ideas, a couple of phrases and ideas gathered during my ten-minute web search.

I think it was the psychologist who wrote “Optimism can be defined as being confident of the future or success of something, it claims everything will be all right despite reality.” I’ve heard optimism described as the typical American virtue, the “can-do” attitude that built a railroad across a continent, dug a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, and put a man on the moon. The problem is, as everyone knows, that reality does not always cooperate with our dreams, nor does it always yield to our best efforts -- that's just the way life is sometimes. And optimism cannot stand up to that kind of abject failure of our dreams and wishes. As another writer puts it, “When real trouble comes, the house [of optimism] inevitably comes crashing down.”

“Hope, on the other hand, is a far deeper and more rigorous disposition. It is built on surer foundations and looks to greater realities than just the material world. Hope knows the goodness and value of life in the face of limits, and even in suffering. Unlike mere optimism, hope is able to weather the storm when trouble comes.” I find this a very useful description -- by saying that hope is founded on ultimate realities outside the material world, this author is connecting hope with religious belief.

Last night I had a profound experience of the difference between optimism and hope during a service of the stations of the cross.

.As Jesus fell the third time under the weight of his cross, overwhelmed by its weight, by his human fear of death, and by the weight of the world's sins, I realized that no one would say that Jesus was “optimistic” in this situation. As he hung in agony on the cross, the word “optimism” didn’t fit. But Christians say that Jesus never lost hope: he believed that his heavenly Father would not abandon him. For us, the cross is a sign of hope. The classical Christian symbol of the virtue of hope is the anchor: hope casts an anchor into the future, and fastens itself to God. We trust that God is greater than our problems, that Love conquers hatred, that suffering becomes the means of our salvation, and that death itself is ultimately  transformed into eternal life. This is not optimism, it is hope -- it is based on realities that lie beyond the limits of physical suffering and temporary defeats.

As we enter into the mysteries of Christ’s redemptive suffering, death and resurrection, we may not feel very optimistic about many of the things that are happening in our world, in our country, or in our personal lives. But the Cross and the empty tomb will revive our hope, our belief, anchored in God’s promise, that in the end, goodness and life will be victorious over sin and death.

p.s. Check the list of labels to the left for previous posts about "Palm Sunday."



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