Novelist John Hassler wrote about a conversation he witnessed between two aging novelists, Frederick Manfred and J.F. Powers.
Manfred, at seventy-one, had just finished novel number twenty-five and knew what the next four were going to be about. Then, he intended to start on his nonfiction.
Manfred: “Do you write in the evening?”
Powers: “No, hardly ever.”
“You go to bed early?”
“No, I go to bed at one-thirty and get up at nine. I get to my office around eleven. I fiddle around. I come home around five.”
“What time do you do your best writing?”
“Never.” (Good People. Loyola Press, 2001, p. 91)
Powers’ answer because could be taken, on the one hand, as the harsh self-criticism and weary pessimism of a man never satisfied with himself or his work: “When do you do your best writing?” “Never: nothing I write is good enough.”
On the other, it could be taken as an expression of hope: “When do you do your best writing?” “Never—my best writing is still out in front of me.”
Nothing is easier to come by than pessimism. There are plenty of reasons for it. The economic outlook is (still) gloomy: scarce jobs, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and crashing retirement investments. Political discourse is relentlessly coarsening. Leaders can’t seem to put the common good ahead of narrow self-interest.
There are our personal anxieties: a family member struggles against cancer and endures treatments which seem as threatening as the disease. A colleague at work buried a loved one whose death came sooner than seems right to anyone. Friends worry and weep over close relationships which are fraying, even ripping and tearing. Others live with an unending loneliness.
Pessimism is plentiful and cheap, and it makes for a lousy life. Researchers in the area of “emotional intelligence” have demonstrated that while people with a “pessimistic explanatory style” have a firmer grasp on the facts and the givens of life, they also lack the will to take action in the face of those realities. Optimists, while not as realistic as pessimists, tend to be more engaged in the search for solutions to the problems they confront than are pessimists (Not being confused by the facts appears to have some adaptive value!). This research confirms what most of us know intuitively: pessimism drains away the energy we need to do something about the problems we face.
Optimism serves us better. Optimistic, positive people are more fun to be around, are more likely to be our leaders, and, most often, enjoy greater success than pessimistic.
The trouble with optimism, though, is that is depends on the idea—the illusion—of progress: the belief that things are improving and people are getting better.
And optimism thrives on denial of the hard truths we know about the persistence of evil, the randomness of tragedy, and our own flaws, weaknesses, and failures.
We need hope instead of optimism. Hope does not traffic in denial or depend on progress. It faces truth and depends on God. Hope does not hinge on things moving onward and upward; it turns on the dying and rising of Jesus from the grave.
To have hope, we need a story, a narrative, that gathers up yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the time beyond time. We need the story of Jesus which unfolds against the backdrop of the history of God’s faithfulness to Israel.
In the life and death of Jesus, God has undergone everything which drives us to despair. God has come to our sides and entered into our experience. God has embraced all our diminishments and limitations. God has shouldered our burdens and frustrations. God has been touched, even wounded, by our failures, sins, guilt and shame.
But God does not come into our desperate conditions merely to identify with us: God means to redeem and renew us, by raising us up just as surely as God raised Jesus from the dead. Resurrection means that we live, not under judgment, condemnation, and death, but in mercy, grace and life. Not in anxiety, despair, and fear; but in faith, hope, and love.
Hope is not resurrection in isolation from the cross; it is resurrection made necessary and possible by the cross. Hope is not a wholeness unacquainted with brokenness; it is brokenness made whole by grace. Hope always bears the marks of prior wounding, and walks into the future on legs once paralyzed by fear. Authentic hope is always paradoxical: embodied by the risen, but eternally scarred, Jesus
The Apostle Paul expressed the paradoxical nature of hope in this way:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5).