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What is optimism? Thinking happy thoughts? Denying our dark feelings? Or something richer and more complex?
As we think about the transition into a new year, I have to ask myself: will this one be better? One of my Facebook friends is always posting about how we should be positive and always have a good attitude. He says that “we create our own reality” and all we need to do is believe things are good and they will be good. This may be right for him, but I just can’t feel that way.
I think the bad things I experience are bad in reality, whether or not I want them to be.
I am not one of those people who is constantly positive and bubbly about life. Some people say that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I don’t think so. Sometimes life just hits us hard and we feel broken. And I don’t think that every bad experience is an invitation to grow as a person. I haven’t always learned something new or grown as a result of the sufferings I have endured. My mother, father, and wife all passed away within one year. Maybe I should have learned something from this or grown as a person, but all I felt was awful. These explanations of optimism are too much for me.
I know that bad things happen to us all, and especially during a time of pandemic, many people have endured real hardships. Loved ones have become sick. Some have passed away. Jobs have been lost. And in the world of politics — well, it hasn’t been pretty. But at the same time, we have seen untold acts of kindness and a remarkable resiliency exhibited again and again. People reaching out to help others. People changing careers and setting new directions in their lives. Dare we be optimistic about the new year?
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Scott Barry Kaufmann suggests that “toxic positivity” is unrealistic, and, drawing on the work of Viktor Frankl, he recommends something called “tragic optimism,” which is “the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence.” This is a helpful formulation. As a religious person, I believe the search for meaning is fundamental to life. But do we need to go so far as to say that optimism has to be tragic to be realistic? I don’t think so. To me, it sounds as if that would mean that we have to accept being miserable as a precondition of optimism. I accept that life is fragile, but I don’t see it as fundamentally tragic, even when bad things happen.
When is life tragic? It can become so if we embrace the pain and suffering that are always part of life and refuse to let them go when the time is right.
My brother-in-law can’t escape the prison he has built for himself. He resents his mother and believes that she is responsible for his marriage breaking up. I try to talk to him, but he turns every conversation into a diatribe against his mother. He just can’t help himself. “Why does she do this to me?” I feel for him, but he won’t think or talk about anything else. He is miserable, and he won’t allow himself to be free. There is no optimism here.
We can choose to make pain and suffering all that we are. But this is a crucial mistake. They are not the essence of life, but they do come to us as part of life. We all have the right to feel terrible — to feel angry, to mourn the passing of loved ones, to resent injustices done to us. Things can hurt us. And we don’t have to bounce back from these experiences quickly. We are all human. The question is: do we let these things define us?
I believe, and I want to suggest to you, that we are all stronger than we think we are.
The human spirit is a remarkable thing, and we can pick ourselves back up after we have fallen. It is important to know this, so we don’t talk ourselves out of recovering from tragedy. Every morning we have to make a choice that day about how we want to live our lives.
At the same time, we also need to be able to admit to ourselves that we might need help recovering from tragedy. Sometimes we get so lost that we need a helping hand. And sometimes there are physical or chemical complications in our lives. I have had people close to me who were addicted to alcohol. They were good people and strong in many ways, but the alcohol kept them from being themselves. We are all stronger than we think we are, but sometimes we need someone else to remind us of this and offer a helping hand. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Strong people need help too.
And that brings us back to the search for meaning. This is, I think, the key to an optimism that isn’t just “being positive.” Tradition says that the ancient oracle at Delphi had the exhortation “Know Thyself” at the entrance to the temple. Most of us think that we know ourselves, but this knowledge doesn’t come easily. Socrates says that he spent his whole life trying to understand what the oracle meant. He did this by asking others questions about their lives and choices and then challenging the answers he received. It’s something we should all emulate. And his search for answers led him to insights into what he called eternal, immutable ideas. He began trying to know himself, and he ended up understanding his place in the universe.
The broad perspective on life that comes from this kind of reflection makes a stronger, more substantive optimism possible, something I call a “mature optimism.” It is based on an understanding of the power of tragedy in our lives, but it allows us to draw on our own strength to overcome it.
The search for meaning is really a quest; it could last a lifetime. We can always learn more, and our optimism can grow and deepen. So can our strength and resilience.
As human beings, we are all flawed, and in life we all experience our share of disappointments, sadness, and tragedy. No one is immune from this. But this doesn’t mean life itself is tragic. It is possible to accept the reality of pain and still wake up every morning, inspired by what the future might hold for us. Life itself remains beautiful. In spite of what the world has dealt us this last year, and in spite of all that we may have endured, we can dare to be optimistic.
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