Hope vs. Optimism

Paul Raushenbush’s column responding to the historic passage of health care reform defines hope beautifully, regardless of which side of the health care issue you are on.  Here is an excerpt:

Now that this major victory has been won in Congress today, I realize that what I really had at the start of President Obama’s term was not hope, but optimism — and optimism won’t carry you very far in politics, faith or life. Hope is different than optimism. Optimism assumes that everyone will be happy clappy and go along with the program, and then crumples when they don’t. In contrast, hope inspires endurance, and requires serious work. Optimism is a luxury for those who can afford to lose. Hope is for people for whom there is no alternative but to persevere. It was not optimism that carried the great civil rights movements of the last century, it was hope that made a way when there was no way, and squeezed justice out of the bitter fruit of persecution. Hope is tied to a belief in something greater than oneself (if only the collective wisdom of humanity) that wills this world to be a better place. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote “Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Hope is the knowledge that we can choose; that we can learn from our mistakes and act differently next time. That history is not a trash bag of random coincidences blown open by the wind, but a long slow journey to redemption.”

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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  1. As a man of faith and a psychologist who just had his book, The Optimism Advantage, get to the bookstores today, I had to comment on your post. The research on optimism suggests that optimists are far from passive. They have a bias for action. Optimism isn’t motivation on hype; it is earned by a track record in overcoming obstacles. The more you overcome, the more you believe you can do it again. It is clear that faith transform negative beliefs about life in a way that frees us to use our gifts to make a difference. The optimism encouraged by President Obama is based on government providing the hope and services. Instead of letting people take responsibility for their own choices and Christian communities doing our part to give help to those in need, we now give through taxes.
    I must also say, that the hope that God gives is not as man gives. We are grounded as brothers, children of God blessed by his grace for eternity. Hope doesn’t come from Washington; it comes from faith and being transformed and used by God. Thanks for writing on this issue. I’d love to have you visit and add perspectives of faith to my blog–whether you disagree with me or not! 🙂 God bless your week.

  2. Hi Terry,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to “Hope vs. Optimism.” I don’t dismiss the power of optimism. In fact, most would consider me a very optimistic person.

    My grandmother was a devotee of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking, and my mother is still inclined to say, “I just need to think positively,” with the expectation that everything will turn out all right. Some five years after my father died, and she is still struggling to understand why her positive thoughts didn’t save him. Her experience illustrates why I found Raushenbush’s distinction between optimism and hope so helpful (even if optimism isn’t only passive as Raushenbush suggests). While there is likely some psychological benefit to optimism, it is not good theology. That is, optimism, in itself, does not make sense of human suffering and our relationship with God. Optimism could not bring an end to segregation, could not prevent the earthquake in Haiti, could not relive famine in Ethiopia, could not stop genocide in Rawanda, and could not avert the Holocaust. Optimism won’t keep someone with a catastrophic illness from dying, and optimism won’t buy someone health insurance. Optimism is not redemptive. Only God redeems, and that requires faith and hope.

    I loved Raushenbush’s use of Niebuhr’s quote: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.”

    I will continue to be optimistic. I can’t help it; it’s in my genes. But I will also profess hope and recommit myself to fight and persevere for those changes that I will never achieve in my lifetime, trusting that the universe will continue bending toward justice.

  3. Hah am I literally the only reply to this incredible writing!

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