Faith, Optimism and The Continuum of Hope
I’ve spent a lot of time these past few days mulling over the differences between Faith and Optimism. It seems to me that at this cultural moment people are clinging to worldviews that are crumbling from our grasp like handfuls of sand. What once seemed solid in our hands is slipping through our fingers while the world quakes, we tremble and the concept of normal is best left to philosophers.
The concepts of faith and optimism tend to be used interchangeably but they have vastly different meanings. It was while watching some video content from another coach this week that I was struck with this common misinterpretation of language. While he paid lip service to the etymological differences and traditional definitions of the two words the bulk of his video teaching focused on faith almost exclusively and he missed a great opportunity to delve deeper into our collective psyche at this moment in time.
Looking at faith and optimism in context with today it helps to look back at previous world shaping events. War analogies have been popular among politicians and writers of late, President Trump continues to say that we are in a war with an invisible enemy. But the war imagery doesn’t sit well with me, it’s just too violent. Doctors and research scientists are not soldiers, in a bloody war, they are dedicated healthcare providers working to prolong human life.
As a Canadian and an endurance athlete I prefer to think of it in terms of winter and marathons, two things that suck and can seemingly go on forever. We all know that winter and marathons eventually end, we just don’t know how much pain we are going to have to endure before we get to the finish line. Nor do we know how long that pain is going to linger afterwards. The current COVID19 pandemic and the sociopolitical fallout that is sure to follow are a lot like running a marathon in a Canadian winter, just one storm after another with no end in sight and the distinct possibility of a stress fractured ankle ruining our summer.
So, what about Faith and Optimism?
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived the holocaust then spent the rest of his career counselling and studying victims of long-term trauma. What he found was that those who started out the most optimistic rarely survived. The optimist might say “things will be better by summer”, but what happens when summer comes, and nothing has changed? As the continual disappointment of missed deadlines and failures mount, the optimist suffers a broken heart and dies a little each day. He tends to put too much stock in his own ability to influence the outcome and bend reality to his picture of how things should be.
The person of faith on the other hand recognizes that he is but one piece in a massive machine full of autonomous and often conflicting moving parts. As such, he rarely makes predictions that depend solely on his or anyone else’s ability to complete a specific task. The person of faith instead places his trust in the concept of better and celebrates incremental improvement along a never-ending continuum of progress. While the optimist can only look forward to an arbitrary point in the future the person of faith can look both backward and forward noting how far he has already come and have hope for even better days ahead.
If you are looking for a word to pair with faith the concept of hope is much more congruent than optimism. Hope, according to the author of Hebrews is the driving force behind faith.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. [Hebrews 11:1]
Without hope, faith is formless and provides no measure for progress. Hope provides the continuum of growth with a touch point we can stop at and say, “look what we have accomplished” without placing too much emphasis on our own abilities or discounting the influence of outside forces. Hope also does not rely on an arbitrary end point but rather leaves open the possibility of continued progress than we could ever have conceived from the start.
Little Orphan Annie said, “The sun will come out tomorrow” and whether it did, or it didn’t she had nothing further to add or look forward to. The person of faith and hope says, “The sun will come out eventually” and when it does it’s just another event in the continual march of progress.
Surviving COVID19, like every other history shaping and personal growth defining event, is going to take faith and hope, it is not going to require optimism. Optimism can set you up for failure, faith and hope are built to survive setbacks and endure long roads of recovery.
The road is long, there will be setbacks. Keep the faith. The sun will come out, eventually.