Provisional, Pragmatic Optimism: E-pistle 02.10.11.

Provisional, Pragmatic Optimism: E-pistle 02.10.11.

Lest this week’s e-pistle topic gets dismissed as the warm glow of a vacation in the sun, let me clarify:

~ I wrote this on the cusp of returning… when looking forward to being away has been replaced with a feeling for all that needs to be done when I get home, and

~ I’ve appreciated the merits of optimism long before my flight from bleak midwinter. In fact, I’ve been pleasantly aware of my penchant for seeing things optimistically for at least 15 years, since my first round of therapy. My recognition of this emotional habit began in mid-90‘s with public service announcements about depression, helping me realize how far from depressive I am.

More deeply, I trace my own positivity to a difficult childhood… more than a child should have to deal with. Our upbringing left my brother angry and put upon, feeling cheated and blaming almost every adult problem he encounters on our family of origin. Very differently, I ended up with a confidence in my competence– if I could navigate difficulties the world threw at me as a child… That faith has turned out to be a great gift in life.

In recent banter with one of you– the sort of silly conversation that often prompts my reflections, almost free therapy– I am referred to as “Rosey,” for my penchant for optimistic, rose-colored glasses perspective.

My conversation partner will be identified in this e-pistle only as “Baby Bird.” That code-name comes from the reflex of fledglings automatically ducking when a shadow passes over the nest. When it’s a bird of prey swooping down to make a meal of them, this innate, evolutionary habit makes great sense. But as a reflex, it allows little differentiation. Whether it’s a fluffy cloud offering respite from the summer sun; a lazy, bobbing, runaway balloon; or a falcon screeching down to cut their lives short, baby birds flinch and duck all the same.

The playful banter between Baby Bird and Rosey hearkens back to a much more erudite philosophical debate. The German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (who along with Descartes and Spinoza was a great 17th century advocate of rationalism) is famous (infamous?) for his conclusion that our universe is, in a restricted sense, the best possible one God could have created. Leibniz and his philosophical position are probably remembered mostly because of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, drawn from Voltaire’s novella of the same name.

Voltaire’s satirical Bildungsroman critiques Leibniz’s sunny attitude. Its eponymous protagonist is dislodged from an Edenic paradise where he is being optimistically indoctrinated by his mentor Pangloss into the real world and the slow and painful disillusionment of witnessing and experiencing great hardships. With his unrealistic, sheltered existence behind him, Candide concludes (with Voltaire!) by replacing “tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes” (‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’) with a much more reined-in, enigmatic precept, “we must cultivate our garden.”

Too rosy an attitude or too sunshiny a perspective can be ridiculous, even dangerous. Baby Bird rightly chides me about the limits of optimism, the blind spots it causes– when one fails to recognize or name something terribly wrong, especially if one has some agency to make the situation better.

Or, even in hopefulness, if one comes up with an unrealistic summary of a situation. I have spoken before of my grandmother whose conscious decision not to see life’s negatives or “anything unpleasant” got in the way of fully living, especially in relationships with people whose lives were difficult.

No matter how optimistic one might be, all is not right on the earth. Or with any of us. The unrest in Egypt… the suicide rate among gay teens… housing homeless men in our social hall… cannot be accepted as the best in the best of all worlds.

But too much anxiety… shouldering an unbearable or disproportionate load of responsibility… feeling or fearing that nothing works out… can “shut us down” as surely as refusing to see anything wrong or failing to claim a modicum of ability for improving the situation. As my friend Geoffrey articulated for me years ago, “my anxiety adds nothing to a situation; it only makes things worse.” Or as I remind people, “The sky doesn’t fall very often!”

My positive outlook has some antecedent in personality and resilience (or birth order in the hierarchy of an alcoholic family!), but, I believe, it’s aided by my faith: God is in heaven, and I’m not responsible for everything on earth. Still, I’m called and gifted to do something.

Beloved, we aren’t in charge of everything. Giving us freedom, God apparently values not being able to control everything. Things do not always work out, even with the best of intentions. But most of us don’t get devoured by birds of prey (though that’s a privileged person’s perspective!). And many of us plant and care for some pretty nice gardens… spheres of influence, perhaps circumscribed, where we are very fruitful and that make life better for ourselves and others.

Maybe Voltaire, despite his religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility, was right: the secret to life is appreciating the garden we are given to cultivate. Yes, Dr. King was right, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but” he continued, “it bends towards justice.” Our faith teaches us we all have a part to play. Life matters. It is good. Not perfect. But it can be meaningful. And worth doing well.

Christians come in all emotional configurations and constitutions. Baby Bird works just as hard, if not harder and is probably more effective than Rosey, though, perhaps, with the cross of less confidence in our outcomes! But doesn’t our faith provide a worldview– whatever our emotional reflexes or habits of personality– to open us up, make us aware, keep us present, and call us to action– to do what we can to bear fruit? Beloved, cultivate your gardens!

See you in church,

Michael

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