Optimism vs. Realism

The essence of optimism is not its view of the present, but the fact that it is the inspiration of life and hope when others give in; it enables a man to hold his head high when everything seems to be going wrong; it gives him strength to sustain reverses and yet to claim the future for himself instead of abandoning it to his opponent. It is true that there is a silly, cowardly kind of optimism, which we must condemn. But the optimism that is will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proven wrong a hundred times; it is health and vitality, and the sick man has no business to impugn it. There are people who regard it as frivolous, and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future. They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations. It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; and in that case, though not before, we shall gladly stop working for a better future. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, anti-Nazi theologian

If ever there were a man for whom pessimism would have been an irresistible siren song, it would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a remarkably thoughtful man of learning and a Christian theologian who watched his country plunge into the utter tyranny and unspeakable horror of the Nazi regime. His country, his freedom—indeed all he believed in, would fall under the crushing authoritarianism of national socialism. A fascinating individual, his involvement in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler led to his imprisonment and execution in 1945. His Letters and Papers from Prison, published posthumously in 1951, is a profound testament of his convictions.

We all hold a philosophy of life that determines our reaction to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it. We may face the trials and tribulations of life with the extreme pessimism of suicidal despair. As 20th-Century French philosopher Albert Camus said, “In the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.” That is a rather dark view of existence, yet somewhat understandable when one pulls back the facade of civilized society and sees the shadowed side of pain, corruption and cruelty man is capable of enacting.

Stoicism and Buddhism offer two contrasting, yet surprisingly similar “middle path” approaches to life: Stoicism accepts the suffering of life through an indifference to both pain and joy, while focusing on a certain mental toughness and code of personal virtue. Stoicism takes the world as it is, rather than allowing oneself to be controlled by either fear of pain or longing for pleasure. Buddhism posits that suffering is caused by our desires, and so the path to inner peace lies in a state of Nirvana, where self and desire are extinguished. In that sense, both Stoicism and Buddhism are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. There is some value to be derived from each of these, yet they are deficient. Indeed, Christians can wander into the temptation to give up on the present world as a lost cause and retreat into a personal escapism, which helps no one and does nothing to better the present world.

These philosophies can lead to a kind of nihilism, devoid of hope that there is something better than this chaotic world. As 19th-Century poet, Matthew Arnold wrote in Dover Beach:

For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Indeed, it can seem that happiness is forever elusive, hope is but empty optimism, and security is an illusion. We all suffer and die, and we may be led to the temptation to escape such a reality, as Hamlet agonized over:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
No more-—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.

Yet, in the midst of a very dark and oppressive society, Bonhoeffer still believed, as the Psalmist wrote, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living.” He chose optimism as a responsibility—not just in the afterlife, but in the present world. His was not a panglossian and shallow false optimism that refused to face the realities of life. It was a devotion to doing all he could to bring love, compassion, truth and beauty into the present reality and not surrender being a light in the darkness, working for a better future, until the Day of Judgement.

Such is the ethic of Tonic Masculinity. Strong men do not seek self-protective escape, whether through suicide or negation of hope and desire. We shine brightest in the darkest times, advancing hope, even while holding a realistic view of life’s challenges and circumstances and facing them head-on. We can and must be bulwarks against chaos and despotism, bearing suffering and scorn for the sake of those in need of strength and encouragement—until the Day of Judgement, which may for the individual mean the day of their last breath, at which time we surrender the battle to the Redeemer. And until such time, we rely on His strength when ours fails; no matter how difficult the present reality, we keep moving forward.

Why do we bear the pains and celebrate the joys of life without shrinking from them or masking them with escapist philosophies, alcohol or despair? Because “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” We understand the the truest Man lived life fully, embracing the joy of the present and enduring the pain of temporal existence, “for the joy that was set before Him”; “He endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” We are told to “Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The ultimate Man walked on this dusty planet and experienced the suffering of humanity, and that gives him immense credibility. He asks true men to walk that path as He did, and promises even to walk it with us. He challenges us to live that Spirit as physical manifestations of His love, His truth-grounded optimism, and his active compassion. It is, indeed, evildoers who have a kind of warped optimism, for they believe that they can grasp personal happiness by imposing suffering on others, by cheating and grasping what is not theirs…but their destruction always comes in time and, as Bonhoeffer believed, there will be a Day of Judgement.

We have the opportunity to be realistic in having our eyes wide open to the brokenness of this groaning planet, while having both temporal and eternal optimism because our hearts understand that there is Cosmic Justice. Because we know that, ultimately, all things work together for good, we can live the values of that Reality today, bringing what justice and good into the world we can.

There is much more to be said on this topic, and it is intimately tied to the meaning of suffering, which you can read about in my previous blog, “The Value of Suffering.”

Keep your head up, your feet moving forward. When you are suffering, find others who are also in pain and help keep them from despair with the optimism that comes from loving and helping your fellow man. Guard your heart from the darkness of evil, have Faith and always keep your eyes on the sure Hope that, in the end, goodness wins.

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