Wisdom vs. Optimism


For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
—Revelation 3:17 ESV

Jollyblogger is one of my favorite blogs, since David routinely writes on topics too often ignored in the Church. He’s recently read a book called Learned Optimism and discusses how faith and optimism go hand-in-hand.

Tragedy & ComedyWhile I appreciate David’s view, I believe that, in and of itself, optimism does not equal faith. Instead, optimism and it’s darker sibling, pessimism, are both essential to living a life of wisdom.

We Americans are the quintessential optimists. Our country is founded on ideals that say that every man has a chance to succeed and success is out there for anyone willing to work hard enough to achieve it. This idealism has permeated our church, too. We’ve hitched the wagon of our Christian beliefs to the draft horse of optimism and let it carry us wherever it will.

The rage over the television program American Idol is the essence of American optimism. Any poor waitress or cab driver could be the next pop star, singing before packed stadiums of people who have paid inflated amounts to hear the newly-crowned king or queen of the recording studio belt a few live tunes. And sometimes we even laud the runner-up, as Clay Aiken can attest.

But as much as we love the rags-to-riches story, we also have a revulsion for those who cannot see that their time has come and gone. There is no more American movie than Sunset Boulevard in which an aging silent film star is driven to madness by her optimism that her adoring public will clamor for her to make another blockbuster. Those who understand know that if Gloria Swanson’s faded star had been blessed with a little more pessimism to balance out her burden of optimistic glee, William Holden wouldn’t be floating face down in her pool.

American Idol also serves as a wake-up call when we get glimpses of the similarly deluded optimists who believe they are blessed with a set of pipes that would make Streisand or Pavarotti weep for joy. They “bless” us with their performance and we don’t know whether to laugh or cringe. Their optimism and faith has become a snare. These are the people who may never have a happy life simply for want of a little pessimism to balance out their optimistic dreams.

The Bible cautions us:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
—Romans 12:3 ESV

A few days ago, I wrote on the book of Ecclesiastes and its message to us (“On Becoming Ecclesiastical.”) For many Christians, if there is a book in the Bible that can be called “pessimistic” the “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” lament of Ecclesiastes makes a good case. I’ve heard well-meaning believers call the book “dour.” Yet, I would contend that this book isn’t pessimistic, but the accumulated faithful wisdom of a godly man who has seen

…that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11b ESV

Many true football afficianados will tell you that the greatest quarterback to ever play the game was Greg Cook. He had the size, the smarts, and a well-aimed howitzer for an arm. Cook was a first-round draft pick and the Hall of Fame was sure thing.

But time and chance happened to Greg Cook. Suffering a career-ending injury only a couple months into his pro career, he was the great one who never truly materialized. Just a month ago I heard a radio program talking about how phenomenal he was and how sad that he never got a chance to live up to his billing. Cook could’ve tried comeback after comeback, but he was no eternal optimist. Instead he dealt with the hand that was dealt him and went on to other things.

Optimism is what starts us on the journey. Pessimism is what informs us that perhaps a better way can be found along that journey. Optimism gets us started and keeps us going. Pessimism allows us to deal with the vagaries that life throws our way.

Anyone who reads enough of this blog knows that it exists to help the Church find its way back to the heart of the first century Church. And while American Christians want to be found faithful, too often we are merely found to be overly optimistic in a time that calls for more sober thinking. What else but misplaced optimism can account for our inability to interpret the times? We keep on going with bright, cheery faces, when we should be brought low by our refusal to repent of our optimism-inspired self-righteousness. Or as Ecclesiastes again says:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
—Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 ESV

We in the American Church of 2005 need to hear what the Lord says to the Church of Laodicea at the beginning of this post. Is the Lord being pessimistic here? Or is He calling for wisdom in the face of self-deceiving optimism? We ought not to think more highly of our position than we should. We should not call the days good when the Lord says they are evil.

Faith walks in wisdom and wisdom, like so many other components of Christian discipleship, is a narrow way that proceeds between two extremes. For us Christians, true faith is found in that narrow road that winds its way between optimism and pessimism, a hope in our perfect Savior and a knowledge of our own sinfulness. Only in this is true wisdom.

2 thoughts on “Wisdom vs. Optimism

  1. Dan:

    If you are unfamiliar with the book David is discussing, I don’t think you’re going to understand where he’s coming from. The book uses the word optimism differently than we might use it: it is talking about how you explain events in your life to yourself.

    For example, let’s pretend that I am a 4.5 ability tennis player (trust me: we’re really pretending at this point!). I play a match and lose to a 3.5 opponent (the higher the rank, the better the player) 6-4, 6-4. What I say to myself afterwards is what Seligman is talking about. His point is that I should explain my loss in ways that are consistent with reality: my opponent was ‘on’ today, my backhand was ‘off’ today – in other words, interpret it as temporary. I should not walk away saying, ‘well, I’m just no good at tennis and I’m over-ranked.’

    What Rom 12.3 says to me (I see it as a command more than a caution) is that I should not have high self-esteem or low self-esteem: I should have accurate self-esteem. If I’m a 4.5 then I should accept that and act like it. Losses should be viewed accordingly and not ‘catastrophized,’ to borrow a term from cognitive distortions.

    I like Seligman and have used his stuff, but I don’t think he deals with the real issues: those lie elsewhere. But he is on-target as far as he goes.

  2. bgart

    I’ve always been called a pessimist. I never took that as an insult. Only because I saw the un-questioning optimism of my peers as lacking in, well, wisdom. Life isn’t always sunshine and roses, sometimes it’s rain and weeds.

    However, I do realize the beauty of the sunshine and roses once I’ve had enough of the rain and weeds.

    It is a narrow path between two extremes. That’s very true. I’d rather be Ecclesiastical than an American Idol.

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