Hope is not Optimism

This weekend, I saw “The Martian” with a good friend of mine. Before the movie, we were talking politics. In particular, we were talking about Bernie. My friend said that he was discouraged by politics, and didn’t think Bernie had a realistic chance of being elected. That the Big Money had won, so there was no point.

In the movie, the main character was stranded on Mars, left for dead. The odds said he was doomed, that he would never survive.

In my work as a sex offender therapist, I regularly work with people mired in deeply rooted dysfunction. The odds are against them all.

If I had to rely on optimism, I’d never make it.

As Americans, we’re taught to be optimistic, to believe in American exceptionalism, that we can do anything if only we have the right attitude. The Secret. The Prosperity Gospel. The Power of Positive Thinking.

The problem with optimism is that the shadow side of it says: if you’re depressed, if you’re grieving, if you’re not winning, winning, always and everywhere winning, you’re a loser. It’s your fault you’re failing, you’re depressed, you’re poor, you’re giving up. You’re to blame, because we’re all rugged individualists, and I’ve got mine so fuck you.

Hope is a very different proposition. Hope says, I’m going to work for what I believe in, knowing the odds are against me. I’m not going to let the odds knock me down, immobilize me with despair or apathy (which is despair in business casual). I’m going to try, not because I know I’ll succeed, but because I know it’s worth doing.

Hope says: give Bernie money, not because he’ll win, but because he’s right. Hope says: if you’re stranded on Mars, keep trying. Hope says: this sex offender, this broken man before me, is a human being. Maybe I can’t heal his wounds, but I’m gonna try anyway. Not because success is assured, but because it isn’t. Because somebody needs to believe in the broken, the marginalized, the ugly one everyone else despises.

And the dark side of hope is that I fail. And fail again. And fail even more. And each time it hurts. Each time I pay a price for believing in someone who lets me down. Each time it pierces my heart.

But I’ll be damned if I let myself become just another callous bastard who won’t even try because it’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, it’s inconvenient, it’s hopeless.

Change is possible. Big change is possible. Ten years ago, gay marriage was an impossible dream. Fifty years ago, civil rights for blacks was never gonna happen. Two thousand years ago, loving your enemy was ridiculous.

Hope is the bedrock of civilization the tender pulsating heart of our deepest humanity. Hope says, it’s worthwhile trusting, even if I do get betrayed. Hope says, never mind the odds, focus on the issues.

Hope says Jesus was right about us.

Hope is not Optimism

One thought on “Hope is not Optimism

  1. Beautifully said Harry. In the past few years (perhaps longer) I’ve grown to dislike cynicism…a lot. I also read a lot of posts by people who believe if we can’t reach perfection, then it’s not worth attempting…this is why I changed from being an idealist to a pragmatist.

    I’ve also come to realize the role confirmation bias plays in supporting the American Mythology. I think this goes hand in hand with your point about misconceptions of those failing as losers, or it being their fault. It amazes me that laws in this country are created on the myopic view of confirmation bias. “I made it, therefore you should be able to. If you can’t, you’re lazy so we’re cutting your food stamps, etc.”


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