With all due respects to Dolly Parton and her positive outlook, it is said that an optimist is one who, as he or she is falling from the Empire State Building, says to himself or herself at the 50th floor down, “Hey, so far, so good!”
And in that joke lies the inherent problem with optimism. If our lives might be compared to a fall from the Empire State Building, all is relatively good for a time – with beautiful views, cool breezes and lots of exhilaration, but the end will still be the same – a swift and final end. Is it unrealistic and simplistic to enjoy the fall – and our lives – while it lasts? And what of other life problems that confront us? Should we be perpetual optimists who choose to see only the good in life? Are we gloom and doom naysayers who imagine evil and misfortune around every corner? Or is there some place in between?
During the upcoming month, I’ve chosen three songs that might inspire as well as entertain us. Music is like any great art form, it is capable of stirring our souls, pricking our emotional hearts and promoting introspective thought. I hope the same will be true with the songs I have chosen – “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” as we just heard, Lada Gaga’s “Born This Way” for next Sunday and the TV show Glee’s recent anthem, “Loser Like Me.”
“Born This Way” is an immensely popular contemporary song by the current pop superstar Lady Gaga. The song has an upbeat and fun beat while conveying a positive message of self-acceptance. I hope it will inspire us with thoughts and emotions next Sunday which is also Gay and Lesbian Pride Sunday here in Cincinnati. Finally, in two weeks, the contemporary song “Loser Like Me” will speak to us of tolerance, strength, and confidence in a world of bullying, teen suicide, and discrimination. It is an anthem of hope for the outcast and misfit in us all.
So! Lets make July a month of dancing in the aisles here at the Gathering – or just snapping your fingers to the beat while you remain seated. Church can be thought provoking and fun all at the same time!
On this eve of the Fourth of July, most Americans share similar thoughts – we’re happy for a long weekend, hopeful for nice weather to enjoy a picnic and also reflective on our nation’s founding. It is a time of some unity and common purpose in our celebrations – who can feel bad about a birthday party for our nation? This day of all days should unite us and fill us with good feelings.
And yet, it is apparent to almost everyone that our nation faces many significant challenges. We are engaged in three wars, our economy is barely emerging from a severe recession, millions are out of work, our national debt is at record levels and leaders are still fighting over whether we will default on our financial obligations. It might seem that July 4th feelings notwithstanding, there are many ominous dark clouds on the horizon.
What Dolly Parton’s song seems to say, however, is that our attitudes should not reflect such depressing facts about the state of the Union. Our strength, resilience and positive outlooks will see us through the current times. Everything is gonna be alright, everything is gonna be OK – as she sings in the song. Is this just whistling in the dark? Why shouldn’t we be profoundly depressed about where our nation seems headed?
In personal matters, why shouldn’t we be upset about our finances, our health, our loneliness, our fears, our silent battles with loved ones and with our own worst attitudes? Life is pretty crappy a lot of the time and for our nation, on its birthday, pretty much of everything seems to be going down the toilet. Some chirpy song by a well-endowed country singer cannot change any of those facts. As Norm, on the old TV show “Cheers” once said, “Life is a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing Milk Bone underwear!”
But is that an attitude we should embrace? Many psychologists and therapists believe that one’s attitude – whether positive or negative – profoundly affects not only our demeanor but our actual physical health, mental well-being and even success in life. Statistics show that those who face severe health crises, like cancer, with positive and optimistic outlooks, end up healing faster and doing better. Their quality of life is improved because they refuse to live in gloom. Research also shows that successful people in life are usuallly optimists precisely because they do not fear or run away from obstacles. Instead of imagining failure, they dream of success. They start a business, meet new friends, or move to a new city all with the idea that, like Dolly sang, everything will be OK. Success thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. These people have learned the art of changing the internal dialogue in their minds from that of defeat and despair to thoughts of hope and success.
Contrasted against all of the positive ideas about positive thinking is the understandable notion that optimism is often grounded in myth, falsehoods and naivete. The great French philosopher and writer Voltaire, writing in his fictional work entitled Candide, poked hundreds of holes in the power of optimism. Characters in the novel face unrelenting human misery, suffering and evil all while trying to live up to an absurd and comical form of positive thinking. Pangloss, the philosopher character whom Voltaire satirically used to mock theories of optimism, contends that everything in the world has a good and perfect purpose. Earthquakes, war, disease, and injustice all serve some greater good according to this character. Such thinking emerges directly from the Christian Biblical quote by Paul which states that “all things work together for good to those who love God.”
According to prevailing thinking in Voltaire’s day and, as it exists in many religious circles today, no calamity is without a good purpose because a loving God would have it no other way. Voltaire mockingly has Pangloss say this about the disease of syphilis, which was brought back to Europe from the New World, “It was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not caught in an island in America this disease, which frequently impedes propagation itself, and is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should not have had chocolate.” In other words, syphilis is actually a good thing because, even though it inhibits reproduction, without it, Europeans would not have chocolate – another New World import!
Voltaire brutally mocked religion and Christianity and their pious platitudes encouraging optimism in the face of human misery. Such religious speech echoes today with the well-meaning but ultimately ridiculous words of some who say, in the face of tragedy, that God works in mysterious ways and who are we to question his motives? The starvation deaths of little children are somehow OK because a loving God is in charge. He will use such deaths, this theology goes, for greater good – like bringing those children to heaven even sooner than normal.
Such thinking is found in the belief that what we have on earth now is as good as we can expect. Since God created all things, they must be good. Further, despite our hardships, we can endure them because, if we love and trust God, we will live forever in heaven. That same fundamentalist ethos is taught to young Muslims who, in the face of little life opportunity, choose the option of a suicide bombing death accompanied by the supposed reward of 70 virgins in Paradise. Don’t complain. Be positive. Your life here and now might be miserable but paradise awaits!
In Voltaire’s time, the Church and many Kings and Queens used such a philosophy to quiet the discontent of their populations living in grinding poverty. It is used today to encourage the sick, confused or emotionally wounded to have faith, trust and hope for a clear blue morning in heaven. Even some evolutionary scientists contend that the natural realm is the best we can expect because that is what evolution brought us. Evil and suffering are simply facts of life. We can do nothing about it.
The Fourth of July, however, should tell us the exact opposite. For Americans and, indeed, for many around the world, our revolution 235 years ago represents the idea that humanity can cooperate and work together to bring about a better way. The Founding Fathers refused to accept the Divine Right of Kings and that such an unjust system was ordained by a loving God. The human condition could be made better when humanity is given the freedom and rights to pursue their own course in life.
Albert Schweitzer, the great philosopher and explorer of the 20th century said, “An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight… The truly wise person is color-blind.” And Louisa May Alcott, the noted American novelist, said on the subject, “I’m not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my own ship.” Both persons speak to a higher form of optimism which is not blindly positive with no rational basis for such thinking. Instead, the ideal is to be optimistic based on confidence and reason and intelligence. A successful entrepreneur likely sets out to start a new business aware of the many pitfalls that could result. He or she takes steps to prevent them and has the confidence that everything possible will be done in order to succeed. One learns to sail ones own ship – as Alcott said – thus relying on an inner determination and ability that all will be OK. This is not naive and blind optimism. It is based on reason, courage and intelligence.
Such a form of optimism fights cancer, for example, not with pious acceptance or false hope but with knowledge combined with positive thinking – what treatments have the best chance of success? How should I care for myself so that I can heal? What foods should I eat that promote healing? What doctors and hospitals are best? How can my friends and family surround me with joy and love during the treatment? If I refuse to allow myself to wallow in self-pity and depression, I will make informed and positive life choices that will thereby help me succeed. My optimism will be rewarded by better physical and emotional health because such rational optimism allows for clear thinking and reason based decisions. Pessimism and negativity, on the other hand, sponsor impulsive decisions. This thinking creates a vicious cycle because pessimism helps to cause negative outcomes which in turn creates even more pessimism.
Dear friends, my appeal here today for you and for me is to find in Dolly Parton’s song the seeds of a better outlook for ourselves and our nation. I mentioned two weeks ago my struggle with some recent depression and I know it is caused by my failure to employ a form of reason based optimism. I will get through the issue I face if I muster some courage, some reasonable planning, greater communication and use the love of friends and family. Why should I get stuck in feeling so sorry for myself?
And the same must hold true for our nation in the days, weeks and months ahead. Reason tells us that solutions to our problems are possible and that as Americans we have the ability to find them. Optimism must bring us to the same demeanor our nation will have on the Fourth of July – one of unity and common sense of purpose.
“Light of a Clear Blue Morning” was played extensively immediately after September 11th, 2001. Many of us remember at that time the sea of American flags we saw all over the nation – most displayed not as some nationalistic thumping of our chests but as an affirmation of American unity. We were all attacked, we all suffered and we would all get through the difficulties together.
Such sentiments are sorely needed today. Our leaders and representatives ought to listen to their better angels and seek resolution, peace and dialogue with each other. Clearly we are a politically divided nation with passionate views on both sides of the ideological divide. But our goals are the same – the advancement of the human condition in our nation and around the world.
Our approach, then, must be a humble one – none of us can claim absolute knowledge of what policies or budgets or laws are best. We each have valid and intelligent ideas but we each must be open to accepting the best of what the other side offers. Only by coming together to find common ground in solving our problems – not demanding our way or the highway – will we be be able to solve the pressing problems we face. Only by humbly accepting that those with whom we disagree are also wise can we achieve a national consensus. Is our goal to be right or to find a solution that works for everyone? Contrary to what Barry Goldwater said over forty years ago, extremism is a vice. Compromise by liberals and conservatives, for the sake of cooperation and unity is, I strongly believe, a virtue.
In times of great crisis and stress, our nation has always rallied to the call of national unity. We see it each time major disasters happen in our nation – whether it be a great depression, a world war, a terrorist attack or the assassination of a political leader. We have the moral imagination to work together cooperatively.
That is the spiritual essence of optimism: a core belief in the basic goodness of humanity. It does not naively believe that people will never commit evil acts or that human judgement is always right but it assumes that most people are motivated to work for the betterment of the human condition. Pessimism assumes the opposite idea that humanity is sinful with evil motivations. As individuals and as a nation, if we wish to solve the problems that bedevil us, we must accept the proposition that as liberals, conservatives or moderates – we all want what is good for our nation and the world.
This commonality of motivation will invite empathy and understanding. As a progressive person, I can still understand a conservative wants the same outcomes as me. Let us sit down then, talk in peace, and hear the words, frustrations, fears and dreams of the other. Let us walk in each other’s shoes for a time. In doing so, we will begin to see the light of a clear blue morning – a national dawn of problem solving instead of a dark night of bitter division. As individuals, as a church, as a community and as a nation, we have so much for which to be optimistic. May we go forth with the will, the means, the love and the intelligence to usher in a wondrous world of good for ourselves and all creation…
I wish you all the light of clear blue morning!