Mark Twain, one of America’s wittiest authors, proclaimed that “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little.” Well, I’m over 48. Well over. Yet I find a blend of both pessimism and optimism within myself. Pessimism: about how America is abandoning widespread cultural values in place of subjective ethics; about the rise in violent crime, particularly in young adults; about growing alcohol and drug abuse. Optimism: about God working in the midst of a dark world and bringing eventual justice and victory.
Pontificating on the source of evil in the world tempts me; however, let’s leave that to another discussion. But some recent ponderings provide a metaphor to explain how pessimism and optimism should coexist in us.
Here’s my premise: to fully experience the utter goodness of God, we need to have an awareness of some of the utter badness of bad (not necessarily full, active participation!).
Seven years ago, Oaks Christian School hired me to teach English, and orientation the first week blew me away. The beautiful facilities had been designed to match a challenging yet effective curriculum, the staff (administration and faculty) amazed me with their qualifications and Christian demeanor and collegial spirit, and the school consistently ran on integrity and solid principles. I thought I’d died and gone to teacher heaven.
But frankly, I enjoyed the greatness of Oaks much more after experiencing the frustrations of my previous school. In three years, we had three principals, two good men were fired, another left after one year. In that span, half the high school faculty left. The superintendent fired the athletic director—who was also her husband. Salary reductions of up to 20% were made, because they instituted an unpublished salary scale. Needless to say, staff morale plummeted.
Hence, my blend of pessimism and optimism. I call that realism—seeing both ends of the spectrum. Pessimistic about how some things go; optimistic about how some things go. But the darkness of one enhances the light of the other.
The old McCartney/Lennon tune with the line “getting better all the time,” at face value, is hopelessly optimistic and doesn’t match reality. It doesn’t always get better. But God used the darkness of the previous school to prepare me to be hired at my current school. God used that darkness to demonstrate the delight that comes with life as it should be, as it could be. Truly, he “works for good in all things to those who love him” (Romans 8:28).
Kick Starting the Discussion
Where on the spectrum of pessimism/optimism do you typically land? Why do you seem to focus on one more than the other? Does the negativity of life seem strong? How does God’s love and involvement influence your stance? Have you had times that darkness was used to bring light? How did that occur? What most keeps you from having a realistic perception of life that doesn’t ignore either side?