Pessimism or Optimism?
Apparently, the month of March has been officially deemed, "Optimism month." It is unclear, though, whether the name has been given by the optimists who generally want the world to practice greater optimism, or the pessimists who would rather only put up with optimists one month out of the year. Author James Branch Cabell distinguishes between the two disparate outlooks, "The optimist thinks that this is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist knows it." On that definition, I think I would rather be neither!
Filmmaker Woody Allen once disclosed in an interview, "It's hard for me to enjoy anything because I'm aware how transient things are. Yes, there are strategies of surviving... There are times when you think, 'My God, life is sweet, it's nice,' and thoughts of mortality are in abeyance. You know, watching the Marx Brothers or a Knicks game or listening to great jazz, you get a great feeling of ecstasy... But then it passes, and the dark reality of life starts to creep back in." These are hard words from a person whose films have been described as "nihilism with a happy ending."(1) But is there really such a thing? By his own admission, it seems there is not.
Many have identified in their lives a plaguing sense of meaninglessness. If life as we see it in worldwide headlines and calamities is all there is to behold, Allen is right to be disillusioned with the novelty of it. Stirring music, meaningful relationships, and sublime moments are overshadowed by the futility of it all. Pessimism becomes inescapable.
But perhaps a greater tragedy than this sense of hopelessness is that Christians sometimes seem to agree. It is becoming more and more easy to gather around pessimistic messages and dire forecasts as if my criticism of the world is its only remaining hope. But am I not entrusted with far greater a message than this? The Christian is right to cling to a sense of urgency. Every story and act of Jesus was marked by the urgency of good news. Yet his urgency was filled with burning words of hope for even the darkest of places.
Is there reason for pessimism? There is certainly reason to be sobered by a world of injustice, pain, and death. Is there reason for optimism? The Christian's answer is mixed with tension. She is not optimistic in the sense that her hope allows her to live with her head in the sand or her life so high in the sky that she is removed from the world. He is not so optimistic that the kingdom must be only considered in futuristic visions. As with our own lives, we know that much of this world too will fall away. But we also know that Jesus proclaimed his kingdom among us—hidden like a treasure in a field. We are not quite at home, but we are living here and now and surely not without hope. For the Christian, Christ has won and humanity shall win. There is reason for hope as strong as death, love as unyielding as the grave, for Christ is both near and returning.
Theories of where and how the world is awry are ever-present. While it is helpful to hear a doctor's diagnosis when we are sick, the diagnosis is always given with the hope of stopping the disease, not shocking the patient with realism. Even if the cure is costly, good physicians know that the patient who wallows only in what's wrong stands the smallest chance for healing. But doctors who speak regularly of the horror of disease and little of the available cure are not good doctors. Jesus came for the sick; he told them they were ailing, but he came to offer a cure.
Responding to the printed question of a newspaper seeking opinions, G.K. Chesterton answered the question "What's wrong with the world?" in one sentence. "Dear Sirs," he replied, "I am." In any declaration of dark realities, we do well not to exclude our own hearts. But whether it is ourselves or an entire culture we find ourselves diagnosing, we also do well to remember we are not the doctor. It was with visions of war and brokenness around him that David prayed to the only one who could reach the depths of him as a start to the darkness around him, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."
There is indeed reason to hope. God hears every plea for health and wholeness. The greatest physician has confronted the pains of the world with a stark diagnosis but with a most promising remedy. And Christ has announced the arrival of a kingdom that confronts our infectious despair, calling us further up and farther into the world where God reigns, and we are ever the harbingers of this good news.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Allen Bloom as quoted in Ken Myer's, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton: Crossway, 1989), 63.