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Feb 10, 2008

Will Tomorrow Be a Better Day? Once More on Optimism vs. Hope

One lucky piece of my life: I've always lived in cities (and usually in a country) that believed "next year will be better than this year."  Asheville, Durham, Providence (and a few months in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and even Raleigh): all these places, whenever I was there, had reason to believe that their circumstances -- on the whole -- were on an upward trend.

Traveling elsewhere and among travelers, I don't always see this.  Two weeks ago I was talking with some Italians who were thoroughly despondent about their country's situation.  The Prodi government was disintegrating.  And in the opinion of my new friends, all options for the future were as bad or worse.  ("All the lawmakers are old and stuck!  But not old enough to die.  And until they die, there will be none of the changes that our country needs.") 

Here in Mérida, Mexico, one of my local friends spent an hour telling me about Mexican and local politics.  In particular, he told me about the southern part of town -- which he warned me not to visit under any circumstance.  Crime.  Poverty.  No opportunity.  Ugly like a scene from Escape From New York.

I asked about the kids who lived there,  "Do they have schools? Do they have a chance at a different future?"  "Only with a miracle," he said.

So.  Hope, then.  Not optimism, at least not as defined by the Rev. Peter Gomes.  Here is a Gomes quote (that I just rediscovered in one my comments on a related blog quoting Cornel West):

"So, the struggle is very real, which means that patience is the most important witness -- which is the third thing. Patience is the most important witness. How does the old hymn go?

Not to the strong goes the battle,
Nor to the swift goes the race;
But to the true and the faithful,
Victory is promised through grace."

Does that mean that I'm optimistic? No. I am not optimistic; and no Presbyterian I know is ever optimistic. We live in a fallen world ruled by totally depraved people who do not understand the sovereignty of God.

I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. What is the difference? Optimism cannot stand the bright heat of the noonday reality: mere optimism wilts and has no inner resources with which to combat the seeming hosts of evil all around it. Optimism fades very quickly; but the hopeful are the ones who, in spite of the circumstances, in spite of apparent reality, in spite of the moment, understand that hope endures all things and ultimately carries all before it in God's time. When we had Nelson Mandela at Harvard last fall, somebody asked him whether in prison he had been optimistic that this day would ever come. He said, "I never was optimistic, but I never lost hope."

Unfortunately I cannot find the original source for this quote.  If you happen to know it, please let me know.

07:56 PM in Mexico, Quotables | Permalink


Coming off yet another discussion of how rough and dangerous Durham is (not), I have to say I would disbelieve anyone else's categorization of an area as hopeless and run-down. I'm not saying I would hop up on in there, but just to keep in mind...

Posted by: Valerie | Feb 11, 2008 7:27:52 AM

Oh, and thank you for the nice quote. It is nice to think about hopefulness.

Posted by: Valerie | Feb 11, 2008 8:43:59 AM

Thanks, Valerie -- you have a point. I sometimes believe the others' opinions too quickly (for southern Merida, for Italy, for anywhere good or bed). I'll keep listening. I've heard the southern Merida story many times -- enough that I'm really tempted to take a ride through that part of town. If I can find a taxi that will give me the tour.

Nirit (who you may remember from an earlier post) and her friend Magda lived in Bogota for several months and they just love the place. Think it's as safe as it needs to be, despite its reputation.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 11, 2008 12:01:41 PM