I met a man recently. We were chatting amiably, the way two people do who are testing to see if there’s common ground for deeper connection. Asking what the other person does, where they live, where they’ve been, all the usual things. Somehow the question of optimism came up.
I told him I am an optimist by nature. I believe in the inherent goodness of human beings – that evil acts and evil people are aberrations of the human spirit.
He said he, on the other hand, was very much a pessimist.
I asked him why. I’ve never had anyone tell me that before. Of course, I’ve met people I would consider pessimistic, but never someone who so consciously declared it, with no inkling of regret or sadness.
“I’m Jewish,” he said, “and European. I’m inherently pessimistic.”
As a child, he grew up in a city that had been bombed by the Germans to almost nothing. He experienced the travesty of the Holocaust. Also, he explained, Jews do not believe in an afterlife, so what’s the point of hope?
It’s an interesting perspective, one I confess confounded me.
I was raised Catholic. I grew up believing that something wonderful awaited me, if only I hewed to the values and expectations of Christianity. I would be rewarded with Heaven. While I haven’t considered myself a Catholic in many, many years, hope remains strong with me.
As an American, I hold in my cells the call to independence, to adventure, to seeking a better life and believing it’s there, just around the corner. There’s always something glorious waiting – “the shining city on the hill” – my friend said, quoting Ronald Reagan.
Reagan took that phrase from Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop’s exhortation as he sailed toward the colony aboard a ship in 1630. He wrote: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” (From Life and Letters of John Winthrop, by Robert Winthrop, 1867.)
There have been many references to Winthrop’s “city on a hill” over the years, notably in a speech by Walter Mondale in 1984, and John F. Kennedy cited it in 1961. But it was Reagan’s reference to a “shining city on a hill” in his farewell speech upon leaving office in 1989 that is most remembered today.
Yes, I think my new friend is right: Americans are perhaps ridiculously optimistic. And I agree as well that a Christian influence is at play here. Aren’t we all hoping for some version of the Pearly Gates? But there is something more, a more basic belief system at work.
I couldn’t live without hope. Without knowing that in the end, the basic goodness of humanity will out. Will triumph over evil. Else why would we get up every morning? I have to believe that all will work out in the end. That the good guys will win. It’s not Pollyanna-ish (though I’m sure many would call it that). It’s the only way I could move through the day, could face the hard stuff, accept the disappointments and devastations. I have to believe it will all be okay in the end. It’s how I choose to live. I can’t imagine any other way.