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Can Pessimists Have Hope?

Optimist or pessimist, every Christian can (must!) still take advantage of the virtue of hope.

There is a certain kind of person that puts many of us to shame: the optimist. Fans of cartoons may think of the character SpongeBob SquarePants, who annoys everyone in his underwater town with his positivity. SpongeBob has childlike wonder, and even when dark shadows appear in his life, he still sees the light. In one episode, he notes, “I’ll have you know I stubbed my toe last week while watering my spice garden, and I only cried for twenty minutes.”

Many of us, however, identify more strongly with SpongeBob’s pessimistic co-worker, Squidward Q. Tentacles. Squidward is a world-weary realist, tormented by his colleague’s unwavering sanguineness. Squidward tends to expect the worst and find it, and he tells his customers at the Krusty Krab restaurant, “Please come again. When I’m not working.”

Then there is the next-level optimist, who is impossibly cheerful, epitomized by the orphan Pollyanna Whittier in the novels of Eleanor H. Porter. In the 1960 film adaptation of the story, starring Hayley Mills, Pollyanna describes how her life is one big “glad game,” and she cites as an example what happened when she asked for a doll and received a pair of crutches in the mail by mistake. Instead of being disappointed, she rejoiced that she had no need of crutches. (I, the pessimist, remember watching Pollyanna and thinking, “Bummer for the dude that needed those crutches and got a doll!”) Anyway, Pollyanna turns out to be a good influence on the stuffy New England town where she ends up, but her sourpuss spinster namesake, Aunt Polly turns out to be good for her, too, when she suffers a debilitating injury—ironically, requiring those crutches after all.

SpongeBob and Squidward, Pollyanna and Aunt Polly are flip sides of the same coin.

The Christian is not required to be either optimistic or pessimistic. The Church needs both types, and so does the world. For example, would we know the extent of the clerical abuse scandals if not for pessimists with the stomach to investigate, assuming the worst? But would we have anyone in our churches at all if not for optimists with the heart to take risks and cast a positive vision, assuming the best?

What the Christian must be is a person of hope.

The glossary section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire and expect from God both eternal life and the grace we need to attain it.” A pessimistic Christian may focus on the many occasions to sin and the difficulty of maintaining a state of grace. An optimistic Christian may focus more on God’s lavish gift of grace, no matter how many times we fall down and sin. Both viewpoints are correct, complementing each other.

In five rich paragraphs (1817-1821), the Catechism expands on the glossary definition of hope. And in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Pope Benedict XVI teaches us even more about this virtue and the need for its renewal in the world today. Right from the start of Spe Salvi, our late Holy Father brings heavenly hope down to our messy lived experience in the world. He assures us,

Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey (1).

Pope Benedict XVI’s wisdom brings to mind the practical example of a woman in childbirth. My wife and I have recently begun teaching natural childbirth classes to expectant couples, and one of the major principles my wife explains to women facing the difficulties of labor is “pain with a purpose.” A woman giving birth doesn’t have to pretend she’s having a good time while it’s happening—but with such a glorious goal at the end of the ordeal—namely, a healthy baby!—she can come to understand the agonies of labor as a source of joy. It’s hope in action.

Elsewhere in the encyclical, Pope Benedict elucidates the Catechism’s teaching on hope as a virtue not confined to the individual. “Salvation,” he tells us, “has always been considered a social reality” (14). That is, we do not practice our faith alone, nor does the Christian expect to experience the beatific vision alone. Thus, in our present circumstances on this side of the eschaton, we do not hope alone, either. To build upon our example of a woman in childbirth, we all labor together in this life for the sake of a blessed result that is bigger than any of us, and bigger than the world itself. To get the job done with maximum hopefulness, it is a benefit to have some SpongeBobs, Squidwards, Pollyannas, and Aunt Pollys mixed up together.

St. Paul bids farewell in his letter to the Romans by highlighting hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (15:13).

Whether we’re optimists or pessimists—insufferable idealists, prickly grumps, or something in between—may we abound in the same hope, too.

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