At two meetings I recently attended a question on the definition of the words hope and optimism was raised. In our age of anxiety when what has been reliable is crumbling, as civic discord, disillusionment and identity politics divide us; as politicians of both parties, talking heads, opinion based journalists and spin doctors vie to outdo each other in self-aggrandizement and chicanery, exploring the distinction between these two words is perhaps helpful.
Many years ago Rev. Kerry Holder-Joffrion and I attended a Trinity Institute National Theological Conference in New York on, Can We Afford a Positive Future? One of the speakers, Rev. Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard, spoke eloquently on the critical differences in the meanings of optimism and hope. His speech has remained in my heart and it’s worth repeating and paraphrasing the comments he made. Gomes talked about optimism as having an intrinsically greedy quality about it and saw it as a word frequently associated with a vision of the American way of life remarking, that it is as, “American as Apple Pie” and “almost an American creed.” He saw it as an attitude that seduces us into looking only at the bright side while refusing to look at the darker, shadow side of a situation.
Hope, on the other hand, he noted, “is forged on the anvil of suffering.” In order to understand hope it is necessary first to look at suffering as the predecessor to hope which has an amorphous quality. Emily Dickinson described it as, “A thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Since most of us don’t want to look at, or get too close to suffering, of course we prefer to be optimistic! It requires a lot less of us. Gomes was not of course advocating suffering for its own sake, but noting that St Paul saw it as the fruit of suffering, for suffering produces endurance which produces character which in turn produces hope.
In this famous painting of Hope, the blindfold female figure seated on the globe, listens intently while playing the one remaining string of her lyre. As we hear of the global refugee crisis, terrifying wild fires, random shootings, corruption and self-dealing in the highest levels in our government institutions, wars and global warming, with whatever strings remain on our collective lyres, let’s play together the music of healing for our lives: Play for the world!
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops atall