I’m hopeful, but not optimistic

Here’s my August column for the award-winning @HollandSentinel…

The mother of a dear friend lives in an assisted living facility in Florida. My friend hasn’t seen her mom since the outbreak of the coronavirus in late February, but each month the staff organizes a parade in front of the facility, so that children and grandchildren can drive by in their cars and wave and honk horns.

Sounds horrible (almost as horrible as living in a “facility”), but the photos my friend sent were touching. The older adults were in lawn chairs, close to the street, and many of them had tears in their eyes, grateful to see and hear loved ones without needing an online platform such as FaceTime or Zoom.

My own mother celebrated her 94th birthday in May. The facility where she lives in Grand Rapids did not organize a parade, but I drove over and serenaded her with a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday” from ground level. My voice didn’t carry as far as I thought it would, so my mother stood on her third-floor balcony and listened to me sing on her phone, as I sang into mine. She said my singing was “beautiful,” and maybe it is to my mother.

Being isolated for so many months can’t be good for older adults, but I read recently that older adults are better equipped for isolation than the rest of us because they spent a great deal of time alone before the pandemic. I haven’t asked my mother about this theory, because I try to stay positive in our phone conversations, but I suspect that she would agree. She survived the Great Depression, World War II, and my adolescence, so the last few months must seem easy by comparison.

To be honest, I’m not doing quite as well as she is. No need to send cards or flowers to cheer me up, but I was ready to get on with my life a few months ago. I was ready to go back to the gym and to favorite restaurants. I had a good summer planned too, with road trips to Stratford, Ontario, Gambier, Ohio, and the Leelanau Peninsula. All of that came to an end in late May, as it became clear that the virus wasn’t cooperating, that all of our sheltering in place seems to have been squandered with the rush to open up the economy.

I’m irritated by people who put their personal freedom ahead of the welfare of all, but my irritation hasn’t diminished my hopefulness. I’m hopeful by nature. Not optimistic, but hopeful. There’s a difference.

You may have heard of the Stockdale Paradox, which was named after the naval officer James Stockdale who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. According to the Stockdale Paradox (you can read more about it in Jim Collins’ bestselling book Good to Great), optimists are frequently disappointed. In fact, in a prisoner of war situation, optimists are often the first to have their spirits crushed. The rumor of a release date sends spirits soaring, but when the date comes and goes, optimists often feel the disappointment more acutely than anyone else. (I assume that pessimists were not great company in these situations and that they were no better equipped to survive.)

But those who lived with hope, those who stubbornly believed, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that they would survive—they were the ones who took disappointment in stride. They were the ones who were still around when the day of freedom finally arrived. They were the ones like James Stockdale who went on to become president of The Citadel and a vice presidential candidate (on Ross Perot’s 1992 ticket).

Hope requires far more courage than optimism. Optimism, to my mind, always has a shallow feel to it, like a sunny disposition—chipper, light-hearted, buoyant, all good things in themselves, but not sustainable in the face of hard times, like our current political situation, for example.

Hope is different. Hope has depth and substance. As a believer, I can be a hopeful person, without always being optimistic. I trust that the arc of history bends toward justice. I trust that the “Beloved Community,” a term popularized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings, will one day become a reality. I trust that the peaceable kingdom described by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, where “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the fatling together,” will turn out to be more than lovely poetry.

I believe these things, just as I believe that there will one day be life after Covid-19. It’s just that I can’t see it right now.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

10 Responses to I’m hopeful, but not optimistic

  1. Armando Goenaga August 6, 2020 at 7:54 am #

    Hi Doug,
    I am hopeful too. Tired but hopeful. I’ve read every single blog since you started writing them way back. I enjoy them and always get something worthwhile from it. Thank you ! Glade to see you and your family are well.
    Warm regards

    • Doug August 6, 2020 at 9:57 am #

      So good to hear from you, Armando. I’m touched that you continue to read my blog!

  2. Elizabeth August 6, 2020 at 9:28 am #

    This was a great post. Thanks for the hope!

  3. James Flavell August 6, 2020 at 9:51 am #

    I prefer this, being optimistic and hopeful, rather than musing about having deadly cancer. 😎

    • Doug August 6, 2020 at 9:56 am #

      You’ll have to write your own column!

  4. Camilla August 6, 2020 at 10:55 am #

    Thank you, Doug. Beautiful.

  5. Suzie August 6, 2020 at 11:33 am #

    The Great Depression, WW2 and your adolescence. Had to laugh! Me too, I am hopeful but not exactly optimistic whilst biding my time on a baking Greek island… xxx

    • Doug August 6, 2020 at 1:07 pm #

      Hi Suzie, most of my readers will feel jealous when they read about the Greek island you’re writing from. I feel fortunate to know why you’re there. I hope your work is going well!

  6. Michael Putt August 6, 2020 at 6:29 pm #

    Joe Paterno used to say “I’m disappointed, but not discouraged,” after a particularly tough loss. I, however, am discouraged that so much of our lives will be lost, and in many ways already is. God is working change, a new earth, at least, if not a new heaven. If there is anything after this, I am wondering what it will be. Take care to you and your family!!

  7. Marion Robbins August 7, 2020 at 9:52 pm #

    Hi Doug,
    I, too, remain hopeful, but just in case, here’s another option:

    “When in danger or in doubt,
    Run in circles, scream and shout!”