Be Happy. Cultivate Optimism!

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I.

Someone has said, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  One of things we realists watch out for are cliches, maxims, and moralisms that reduce the challenges to near nothingness.  I don’t know of anyone who has lived more than a few years without knowing something about pain in living; maybe a few of us get to skip over those impossible decisions that MUST be made, but not a lot of us.  The worst thing in trying to deal with a real challenge is to trivialize it—or worse, in my mind, to have someone offer us free advice that suggests, bottom line, that we trivialize whatever threatens our loved ones or us.

Some of the worst of those efforts to trivialize that I’ve heard include these.  “Well, you have to take the good with the bad.”   “We all have our crosses to bear.”  “Too blessed to be depressed.”  “God doesn’t give us anything we are unable to handle.”  “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  Then there is my maternal grandmother’s favorite line since she thought that no one had ever endured pain the way she had, “That’s nothing.  You don’t know what real pain is.  Let me tell about it.”

Back to where I began, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  This one I like.  Optimism has something to do with making the most of what we have to work with, believing that the worst case scenario doesn’t have to be the one that will win out.

There are those who set out to do something good, even noble, and because their cause is clearly a good cause they somehow believe that God or the Universe will bless their efforts and, more or less, guarantee their success.  Yet, sometimes—even with divine blessing or the smile of the Universe—our good cause falls flat.  Optimism has something to do with enjoying the journey, blessing ourselves for our efforts regardless of outcome, refusing to let negativity block the little rays of light and hope.  I like what Vera Nazarian said on the subject:

People who are too optimistic seem annoying. This is an unfortunate misinterpretation of what an optimist really is.  An optimist is neither naive, nor blind to the facts, nor in denial of grim reality. An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all options available, no matter how limited. As such, an optimist always sees the big picture. How else to keep track of all that’s out there? An optimist is simply a proactive realist.

There’s a website called  “OptimistWorld.com” that I like a lot.  In fact, after years of complaining that most of the reported news in our culture is either terror or tabloid, I found OptimistWorld.  It is now the site that opens up when I click on my default browser.  If I do my internet searches through OptimistWorld there are benefactors who make contributions to charities just because I initiate my searches there.  But, that’s only one benefit for me.  I love the fact that news showing up on my screen is good news.  Yesterday, one of the lead stories had to do with the fact that scientists using human cells may have found a cure for many kinds of baldness.  Now, you may think that news is rather thin, but there’s more!  Cardiac surgeons have developed a new, less-invasive technology used to treat heart failure.  Volunteering can improve one’s mental health, and helping others may help some helpers live longer.  Admittedly, there were no stories about war or politics, but there are optimistic stories from the world of sports.

The site tells me which TV shows to watch if I want a dose of optimism.  And the website’s slogan is “100% Recycled Negativity.”

A retried ophthalmologist, Dr. David Abbott, now spends his time trying to correct the inner blindness that he calls “negativity.”    He is author of the book, Maximum Strength Positive Thinking.  This is what he says about the inner blindness of negativity:

Negative thinking is the most powerful poison in the world.  It’s the only poison I can give to my family, friends, and enemies without legal consequences.  Thought poison destroys them just as effectively as dioxin, DDT, or strychnine.  Unrestrained negative thinking will also destroy my life.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.  I don’t tolerate it in any form or to any degree.  I don’t say it, think it, write it, infer it, or agree with it.  It’s always wrong and never right.  It always makes my life worse and never makes it better….Drinking poison, handling cobras, and negative thinking are bad for my health, and I don’t partake of them.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.

There’s a story about an avid duck hunter whose old, faithful bird dog had to be retired, so the hunter found himself in the market for a new dog.  He was amazed to find the dog that had to be his!  This dog did not swim out into lakes and streams to retrieve ducks that had been shot in flight; instead, this dog walked on water.  The hunter bought the dog and couldn’t wait to put him to work.  He knew his friends wouldn’t believe any stories he might tell about a dog that walked on water so he invited one of them, the most pessimistic one in his group of friends, with him on his initial hunt as soon as season opened.  Sure enough, when the dog’s owner would shoot a duck and it would fall to the water beneath it, his dog—at most getting his paws wet—would walk across the water and retrieve the duck that would soon be someone’s dinner.  The friend whom he had brought along obviously saw what the dog was doing, but said not one word about it the whole day. Finally, on the way home, the man who owned the amazing bird dog asked his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?”

“Sure did,” said the friend.

“What was it?” the owner asked boastingly.

“Your dog can’t swim.”

II.

Today is Reformation Sunday. After the split with Roman Catholicism was complete and Protestantism its own entity Protestant churches began to remember every year the courage of Martin Luther in standing up to the immoral church hierarchy of his day, and the day chosen for the commemoration was the anniversary of Luther’s nailing to the castle church door in Wittenberg his laundry list of topics about which he wanted to debate the Pope himself!  This would be roughly equivalent to a priest in our time making out a long list grievances he had with the Vatican and posting them on Facebook.  It was a gutsy step to take.

Let me be quick to say, by the way, that when Protestant churches grew sufficiently to have their own hierarchies, they ended up doing exactly the kind of things that Luther protested against when unwittingly he started the Protestant movement.  Abuse of power is not the private possession of any one religious group.

Luther had to have been an unbridled optimist, despite some personality characteristics that would call that into question. Patrick Ferry, the Lutheran historian, believes that Luther’s optimism was related to his confidence in the power of preaching to convey his ideals to the common person; Luther wasn’t so much worried about the literate person or the well-to-do person.

In a sermon preached on November 25, 1531, Luther acknowledged that from all outward appearances preaching seemed rather insignificant. However, he argued that, in fact, all else was insignificant in comparison to the preaching of God’s word. He proclaimed: “In the eyes of reason the preaching of the divine Word is unimpressive next to kings and princes. But what are princes or emperor, yes, the entire world, heaven, earth, and all creatures compared with the Word? They are dirt.”

He had to have believed that something better could come about as a result of the tremendous risks he took in challenging the powerful church hierarchy of his day. Some people in those days who challenged the Pope, we’re talking certain geographical areas, could end up dead for such an affront. A priest who was drawing his income from the church, in as much as those who take vows of poverty receive funds, could be left out on the street literally with nothing. And in some areas a priest on the run from a monastery, or for that matter a nun on the run from a convent, could be legally killed and the killer congratulated.  Not many people are going to die willingly for a cause the expenditure of their lives could not improve.

You might well imagine that the mighty and powerful Pope, Pope Leo X, might have wondered if there were a speck of truth in in what Luther spoke. But like most people in power he justified all the means toward the end of keeping the church wealthy and the hierarchy unbothered by the rank-and-file church member.

It is interesting that Luther as a priest himself and a professor in a major university was so cloistered away that he did not realize the corruption of his own church until he made his pilgrimage to Rome and saw with his own eyes the abuses of the church–using all sorts of guilt tactics and superstition to milk money out of the people; eventually, out and out fear tactics would be used by those assigned by the church hierarchy to preach about the necessity of purchasing indulgences to avoid going to hell for eternity and, of more concern to some, keeping the souls of their loved ones already in purgatory from slipping on into the fires of hell.  Luther was, in a word, mortified.

The abuses of the very people whom the church existed to serve distressed Luther to the point that he could not rest. And so he took the risks as I’ve described them and openly challenged the Pope to answer for presiding over a church existing at the basest level to which he, Luther, believed the church could possibly have fallen.

Again I say, to have believed that anything anything good at all could have come from his challenge to such a powerful and paranoid hierarchy demonstrated that Luther was an optimist. He refused to believe that a church that had so much good and so much more potential good could die, the victim of self-inflicted wounds numbing the pain with the anesthesia of absolute power.

Eventually, Martin Luther realized that the church as it was, was too corrupt to be redeemed.  The church and the Pope were hindrances to the future he saw for God’s people.  Said Luther, “The Church needs a reformation. And this cannot be the work either of a single man, as the pope—but it must be that of the whole world!”

There IS a better way, Luther reasoned.  And there has to be a better day.

Anybody who doesn’t see that the church in the twenty-first century is in desperate need of reform is either an ostrich or a comfortable clergy type who wants things to stay as they are, with all the dollars flowing her or his way just as they are now.  If my read on the current Pope is anywhere close to accurate, I sense that he believes his own end of the Christendom—which is the largest and most influential in the world—is in need of reform and that he is unafraid of the fallout.

We already see that the pattern of dividing Christians up into little pockets of denominational groups strewn here and there across the world no longer works; maybe it worked to a degree for a while, but even so it is clearly not working now.  Denominations are dying.  This is one cry for modern reformation, but only one.

Here’s another.  When any branch of the church that presumes or pretends to exist as an extension of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth can act violently, professing the name of Jesus as they maim and mutilate, something is beyond wrong.  Most recently, and right in our faces, the Islamic Society of Delaware had its sacred space defaced by some group who saw themselves as some kind of representatives of Christianity and therefore took some of the debris the resulted from their destructive acts and pieced it together in the form of the cross—for good or ill, the primary, unmistakable symbol for Christianity.

I don’t see how anyone entrenched in such negativity can be optimistic about anything, much less about how their brand of so-called Christianity can endure.  Sadly, anyone who doesn’t understand that there are many different kinds of Christians in the world—and that would be a huge number of people scattered across the globe—thinks we are all the same.  The optimism I have for the future of the church rests entirely in reformation; the church of the future shouldn’t and shouldn’t want to look like the church of the past, even when parts of the church of the past were doing well.

Carey Nieuwhof is a professional dreamer, and he dreams about what the church of the future will look like.  Wanna peak at some of his dreams?  The church of the future has learned to say no to people and groups glued to way things once were.  The church of the future is passionate about people outside their walls and will establish a pattern of reaching out to people on the basis of what we can do FOR them, not what we may be able to get FROM them; it will be streamlined and flexible.  The church of the future will be more comfortable embracing smaller congregations than the church of today is; mega-churches, some of them, will still be around in the years to come, but most of us will not participate in huge congregations.  The church of the future will learn, hopefully not the hard way, to value cyber relationships and to treat online contacts as real people, significant people.  The church of the future will be less afraid of questions, and it will embrace experimentation as the needs of people change more rapidly today than ever before.

III.

There are two instances of amazing optimism in Judeo-Christian scriptures that come to mind today.  I’m sure there are many more, but these two stand out for me today.

The first is the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child together when she was 90ish, and he was tapping on 100.  No adoptions.  No surrogate.  No viagra.  Both of them laugh, separated from each other, when they hear that God has said Sarah will be impregnated by Abraham.  Frederick Buechner, years ago, in retelling this story as an example of comedy in the Bible, made the crack that Sarah delivers in the geriatric ward, and Medicare picks up the tab.  Laugher or not, along came little Isaac.

The second instance is from the final book of Christian scripture as it was ultimately collected and ordered, the book of Revelation.  The abuse of this book has made more crazy preachers rich than any other piece of holy writ in any of the religions of the world.  Alas, there is nothing fanatical about this astounding book of symbols; finally, it is a book of hope.

The book of Revelation doesn’t pretend that people and nations go unscathed by evil; it doesn’t pretend that innocent people avoid suffering through absolutely no fault of their own. The seer who had the visions that make up the episodes in the book—or the scenes in a great play, as my beloved and late Christian scripture professor James Blevins believed—saw, after much strife, that evil ultimately loses out.  Good wins, but it takes a complete restoration and reordering of things to make that work.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the dwelling place of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be with them.  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be a thing of the past;  mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away permanently.”  And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” The one on the throne also said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.  It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

Don’t worry.  Cultivate optimism!  How?  Maria Shriver evidently is quite the optimist, and she has a number of suggestions about how to cultivate optimism.  Among them are looking for solutions rather problems; acknowledging any movement, however small, toward your goals; and minimizing distractions that keep you from focusing on your happiness or on some specific goal.  I have to tell you.  Nothing saps my optimism more quickly than negativity, about which we thought earlier, and naysayers.  I’m going to have to contact Maria to find out how to get over those hurdles.

Maybe geography has something to do with optimism.  Did you see the list that just came out of the five happiest places to live in the world?  Did you ever wonder why Else is so happy, other than because of Bob?  Well, three of the five happiest places are in Scandinavia—one from each of the three Kingdoms there.  (I’m intentionally excluding Finland and Iceland, as several cultural geographers do.)   Aarhus, Denmark.  Oslo, Norway.  Malmo, Sweden. Geneva, Switzerland.  And Utrecht, the Netherlands.  The Americas—not so much.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a good decision or felt good about life when I allowed myself to remain at a place of pessimism.  How about you?

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