hope versus optimism

I passed this sign on a New York sidewalk. “Have hope,” it said in scrawly black chalk on an orange wooden trapezoid. “Have hope,” it said under three upright ichthys symbols, perhaps meant to denote Jesus, perhaps just the author’s need to embellish. “Have hope,” it said to no one in particular and everyone who passed.

“Have hope,” it said to me.

I am always telling myself to have hope. I need it. I know I need it. By knowing and saying I need it, I claim it and make it mine. Hope is in my hands. It isn’t always easy to carry, just as faith isn’t always easy, just as life isn’t always easy. But hope is a function of the one and a fuel for the other. Hope drives me. Hope is the promise of a new wave cresting beyond my sight. Hope is the forward tick of present into future, no matter what that future brings. What it brings could be everything or nothing. What it brings could soothe me or slay me. But what it brings is immaterial. Hope is simply the promise of bringing, and I cannot live without that promise. I cannot live without that hope.

Optimism, on the other hand: I can and do live without that. Despite appearances and occasional accusations to the contrary, I am no optimist. Not about myself, anyway, although my brother swears I am about everyone else (and yes, he’s usually swearing). But no. If I were an optimist, I would look to the distant, cresting wave and expect it to bring me a golden yacht filled with chocolate cupcakes and hot men in tiny clothing poised to do my bidding. Instead, I half- or three-quarters expect that next wave to arrive with a slimy tangle of toxic flotsam, gag me with seaweed, grab me around the ankles and drag me and/or multiple people I love out to sea. Because, frankly, that’s exactly what’s happened with numerous previous waves. The hot men with cupcakes have yet to arrive.

In other words, life has schooled me in the fine art of pessimism. But it’s also schooled me in hope. Each death and departure has taught me three simultaneously lessons: that loving means losing; that losing hurts like holy hell; and that, even as we hurt, life blunders onward indefatigably, pushing us forward with an obdurate insistence known as hope. The hope lies in the pushing. The hope lies in the obduracy. The hope lies in the peculiar human need to search for meaning in the darkness, to find some poetry in the pain, to land in our stumbling upon some little joy or corrective insight that makes all that happens to us just a little less senseless.

Hope isn’t optimism. It isn’t faith in a happy ending; it’s faith in an ending that matters, that bears weight, that limns what it means to be human. Hope is the engine of narrative. Hope is a creative fugue. Hope is the unreason driving every book, every symphony, every artwork. Hope is the thrust and yaw of sex, an urge in search of an outcome. Hope is every grieving, lonely soul who ever turned from a burial site and smiled at a baby. Hope is the baby. Hope is the tongue of a lover, reaching around a mouth in search of home. Hope is the reaching. Hope is the search. Hope is the blood lapping inside us, the lungs swelling within us, the heart beating even as it breaks. Hope knows that death is on its way, but hope is the life we live in spite of it. So, yes. As the sign says:

Have hope.

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