I’m not sure how easy it is to convert a pessimist into an optimist. I’m sure it’s possible, but probably rare. (By the way, as I typed these words yesterday, I was sitting at Starbucks on Marsh Road, waiting to meet with Amanda Catania and our new Social Media Coordinator, Michelle Moran.
Looking out the window, I noticed the front bumper of a scratched up Acura. There was a Handicap tag hanging from the rearview mirror. One of four or five bumper stickers across the front of the car reads: “Just Say NO to Negativity.” What are the chances?)
So, I’m saying it’s probably rare to turn a pessimist into an optimist—though I’m sure it happens on occasion. With that in mind, I’m wondering if it’s a responsible use of time to try to encourage thinking pessimists to relinquish their pessimism and to embrace, in its place, optimism. I mean, if one begins with almost any day’s news from any of the major news networks, there’s not many places to grab hold of optimism. Some of the news shows may end with a happy tale or a cutsie story, but after having been told how the world is falling apart for an hour or half an hour, the little upbeat word at the end is nearly incomprehensible. “60 Minutes” for most of its history may have gotten in right by ending a show with an offbeat word from a pleasant pessimist—at least curmudgeon—Andy Rooney.
I ran across a book review a while back of a book I’ve not read so what I’m sharing with you today is based on the review, but you can see why a book titled, The Rational Optimist, came to mind as I was gathering my thoughts for today. The author is Matt Ridley, whom the reviewer says has made his marks in the world as a zoologist, a banker, a journalist, and for good measure an expert on evolution. Ridley sets out to invite his readers, thinking people, to dare to embrace a positive view of the world—that is, optimism. The gist of his argument, I gather, is that while humankind has in modern times developed “an unmatched capacity to resolve its most pressing challenges,” pessimism has probably dominated world views for about the same amount of time our country has been its own free land. Yet, in “contrast to more pessimistic predictions, humanity has not collapsed.” On the contrary. In the last thousand years, life expectancy has increased significantly in many parts of the world, and violence indicators have been on the decline. Humans have rather continuously increased quality of life for many in the species.
The Rational Optimist. Worth pondering, huh?
Some religions attempt to offer words of optimism, but usually in the context of that particular religion’s winning out over its enemies by and by. Judaism is an exception in this regard. When the ancient writers pictured the culmination of history, all nations and peoples had come together. Yes, they were on Mount Zion, but they weren’t all Jewish by either ethnicity or belief.
Generally, religious groups that have offered optimistic options have done so on a distinctively conditional basis—mostly promising the real good out there to their own adherents, and in many cases these groups have claimed the ability to predict not only what comes to be in this world, but also in the next realm with which they seem more familiar than a traveler who has just returned from an extensive excursion at some fascinating part of the globe.
You will, perhaps, recognize at least some of these words as those of Karl Marx:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions.
The phrase, “opium of the people,” or, “opiate of the masses,” is often used out of context. Marx was thinking more deeply here than at a level that would have allowed to take a callous, rather random swipe at religion.
While I was certainly taught to scoff at Marx and any of his ideas—especially his perspective on religion—even as a professional religious insider, I have to say that, in most cases, he’s correct. Religion isn’t without value for those who need to have their senses numbed, but when it’s time to face the real world—as he says, minus illusions about life as it really is—religion has to go. In other words, any optimism most religions offer is real as an imagined utopia.
Perhaps the most openly pessimistic writer in Judeo-Christian scripture is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!” What benefit do people get from all the effort they expend on earth? A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages. The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again. The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns. All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again. All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it: The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing. What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? It was already done long ago, before our time. No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations (New English Translation).
There are varieties of pessimism. Some pessimism is built on a view of the world that says, either, the world is getting worse and worse—less moral, less safe, and so on. It can’t get any better. The downward spiral will keep spiraling downward until we crash at either divine destruction or self-destruction. The end result in either case will be pretty much the same.
The kind of pessimism with which the Teacher (or Preacher) writing the book of Ecclesiastes is frustrated is that both the natural world and human experience are just going around in circles. Nothing is really changing or improving. Everything is a repeat of what has gone before. Ho hum.
Jesus told a memorable story, a parable, about a guy who was in all probability congenitally pessimistic. Sad to say, all of us probably knows more than a few of these. Was that a pessimistic assessment?
The story Jesus told has been so well-remembered that it has a name, “the parable of the talents.” Dr. Barbara Reid is a nun and cutting-edge Christian scripture scholar with whom I had the good fortune of working last time I had an editing gig–four or five years ago. Now Dean of the Catholic Theological Union, she says the traditional interpretations of the parable of the talents are wrong.
A quick overview of the story is that a demanding master, a wealthy guy, decides to take a vacation or head out on a business trip, and not wanting to lose out on any money-making opportunities from investment sources while he’s away and unable to stay on top of what’s hot and what’s not, he has some smart slaves with financial experience. He taps three of them to invest while he’s away. The slave with the most promise gets five talents to invest; a talent was a unit of currency equivalent to what an hourly worker would earn in twenty-five years of steady, hard work. Let’s say five talents might be equal to a million bucks today. The next slave got three talents to invest–six hundred grand-ish. The third slave got a mere quarter mil to invest. Their mission, their responsibility was simple and clear: stay on top of this money and keep it invested in whatever makes money.
The slaves with the most money to invest did exactly as they were told, and they were good. When the master returned, he was thrilled with how much of a return these two slaves had gotten on the money he had entrusted to their care.
The slave who was left with the least amount of money to invest buried what he had been given in the ground–presumably to ensure that no market decline would cost his master a single dinarious. That worked, but no money was made. In a good market, when there was money to be made with investments, this slave sat on the original amount and ended up not earning a thing for his master. The master was irate and had him punished severely.
A common interpretive approach portrays the master as God and the slaves as God’s people who have been entrusted with talents. The moral of the story is: to the one who has been given much, much is required. And despite the fact that talent was a unit of currency, in English most preachers have crafted their sermons to make talent mean “inherent skill,” such as the ability to sing or arrange flowers or whatever one’s inherent or learned best skill is.
Barbara Reid says this approach is as wrong as can be. Recognizing the subtly subversive streak in Jesus’ teachings and some of his acts as well, she says that, as Jesus told the parable, the slave who declined to invest is the hero of the story, the only one who did the right thing even though there was no happily ever after ending for him.
How could this have been a point Jesus would have wanted to make? Well, for starters, he was anything but a capitalist. The two slaves who invested were status quo types. If they represented followers of Jesus, and they probably didn’t, they were the types who saw value in what he taught, but who still leaned toward traditional Jewish laws as the heart of religion.
The master in the story didn’t represent God at all, but rather traditional Jewish leadership intent on punishing those Jews who were attracted to Jesus’ twist on what was core in Judaism and for that matter core in spirituality.
The slave who was given the least to invest and who didn’t invest at all is the example of what Jesus’ followers needed to be doing–namely refusing to be controlled by the status quo, regardless of its power; regardless of consequences. Investing in the past is a popular but a poor practice.
Professor Reid believes that the parable of the talents shows what happens when someone dares to expose a corrupt system—religious or political; she or he is punished. Optimism is believing it’s still worth taking a stand against injustice and other immorality.