Hope Versus Optimism in a Time of Distress

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Father Richard John Neuhaus famously distinguished hope and optimism:

Optimism is a matter optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see. Hope, on the other hand, is a Christian virtue. It is the unblinking acknowledgment of all that militates against hope, and the unrelenting refusal to despair. We have not the right to despair, and, finally, we have not the reason to despair.

In this trying time, we are called to keep this distinction between authentic hope and optimism in mind. Many of us have seen friends and loved ones fall ill, family members lose their jobs, priests heroically offer their themselves to minister to their flocks, doctors, nurses, police officers, and other emergency workers place themselves in harm’s way to meet the needs of others, and business leaders struggle to keep their businesses afloat. Others, both young and old, are struggling with profound loneliness. For many, plans set in place long ago have now become uncertain and a general anxiety about the future colors daily life.

Father Neuhaus’ observation reminds us that as Catholics we must take up a different way of seeing things. This vision does not ignore the realities in front of us, however troubling they truly are. The refusal to despair does not emerge from a confidence that “everything will somehow work out.” Rather, our hope—as a theological virtue—is rooted in a person, the God who creates, loves, sustains, and calls us to communion both in this life and the next.

But this hope is often hidden. On most days, the natural hope that is simply a cousin of optimism, rules our affections. Most things work out on most days, so why should we not expect everything to come together in the end? In contrast, it is in the times when this optimism grows weak that our need for theological hope becomes stronger. It is in these times that we can more easily recognize the gift of hope that God offers and respond to him in faith.

And finally, we can receive the gift of vision that allows us to see how radical our dependence on God in fact already is each day for everything. In times of crisis, nothing ultimately has changed but rather we can now see more clearly the truth of things: God lovingly holds all things in existence at every moment. Pure self-reliance is a delusion.

In the gospels, being dependent on God was described as being “poor in spirit” and it comes with a promise: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is true hope.

Let us be open, then, to receive ever more of this virtue and recognize the difference between the gift of Hope and the optimism that fades. God, who is our Hope, will never leave us or forsake us.  In God the future is certain and this can give us strength for today.  As Pope Benedict XIV has taught:  “It is only when the future is certain as a positive reality that it becomes possible to live the present as well.”

This morning, Father Boucher offered this prayer:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills of those who love what you command and desire what you promise. During this time when nature too is unruly with pandemic, bolster our confidence, we pray, that our strength found in your Holy Spirit and in your ready help may sustain us during these days and lead us through our Lent back to the normalcy of learning together and the daily joy of worshiping happily with you and Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Two of the authors most beloved by our students have written rich works on hope: Josef Pieper penned a short but profound study called simply Hope. Pope Benedict, as his second encyclical, wrote what many consider to be the finest of his papal documents: Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope).

George Harne serves as a member of the faculty and as president of Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire. 

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