We need hope, not optimism

As regular readers probably know, when I’m not writing this blog I’m writing for a religious magazine and giving talks at churches. When you have that much religious exposure, sooner or later you end up thinking about hope, because hope is religion’s central product.

Humanistic religions offer hope for human progress, while salvation-oriented religions offer hope for a better world to come, but pretty much every flavor of religion deals in some kind of hope: for miracles, for eternal life, for an escape from suffering, for strength to change, for the eventual triumph of the better angels of our nature, or some other desirable outcome.

Once you start thinking about hope, your reading will fairly quickly bring you to a useful distinction that (for reasons I don’t understand) never catches on with the general public: Hope is not optimism.

The two words often get used interchangeably in conversation, and you do often find them together in real life: Hopeful people tend to be optimistic, and vice versa. But once in a while the difference between them is important. I feel like that’s true now in American politics, so I’m pointing it out in this secular context.

  • Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Optimists expect the future to turn out well; pessimists expect it to turn out badly.
  • Hope and its opposite (despair) are attitudes towards the present. Hope holds that efforts to make life better are worthwhile, while despair asserts their pointlessness. Hope says, “Let’s try it” and despair answers “Don’t bother.”

So an optimistic person plants a garden because the rains will come and the plants will grow and the harvest will be bountiful. But a hopeful person plants without knowing what will happen, because the possibility of a harvest is worth creating.

Since we seldom actually know what’s going to happen (even when we think we do), optimism is more brittle than hope. After a hot, dry week, favorable assumptions about the future can flip to unfavorable ones, and our optimism can crash: A drought has started, the crops are doomed, we’re all going to starve. The garden might go untended while the formerly optimistic person searches the horizon for signs of rain.

Meanwhile, the hopeful person just keeps gardening. The harvest was uncertain when everything looked fine, and it’s still uncertain now. It’s worthwhile to keep going.

I trust that the application to the current political situation is already clear to you: An enormous amount of political discussion these days is of the optimism-versus-pessimism variety: Will we manage to get rid of Trump, either by impeachment or election? Is democracy already so damaged that it won’t recover in our lifetimes? Assuming we have a next leader, will he or she be able to heal the partisan divisions, or will America keep spiraling towards division or civil war?

And what about climate change? Are we past the point of no return? Will we pass it soon? Is civilization as we have known it already fated for ruin?

Truthfully, I have no idea.

I know most of my readers don’t want to hear that. Every now and then I find myself conversing with someone who has cast me in a Guardian of Optimism role. I think they cast me that way because I keep paying attention to the news and writing this blog every week. Surely all that would be too depressing if I didn’t think everything was going to work out eventually.

So they want me to pass along my optimistic secret: “Tell me it’s going to be OK. Tell me we fix this.”

I can’t. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. To be either an optimist or a pessimist requires a level of hubris I don’t have. For good or ill, reality has a way of doing whatever it damn well pleases, no matter how tightly we think we have it tied down.

So my advice at this point in history is to get comfortable with not knowing and try to stay hopeful. Keep tending the garden and let the rain do whatever it does.

Which means: Try not to waste too much of your time and energy searching poll results for evidence that Trump will or won’t be re-elected. Don’t agonize over who the Democrats will nominate. Don’t watch panels where pundits argue over their predictions. Don’t try to pick the exact year when the climate catastrophe will hit.

Just do something. Campaign, demonstrate, give money, write letters, mobilize your friends. Whatever you can think of.

Will it work? Who knows? We don’t need to know. Someday, maybe, we’ll look back and see that whatever we did either worked or didn’t work. Between now and then, a lot of unforeseeable stuff is going to happen.

So don’t waste a lot of time trying to foresee it. The harvest — as rich or barren as it might eventually be — will get here soon enough. Until then, just keep working. It’s worthwhile to create possibilities.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Larry Benjamin  On June 10, 2019 at 10:02 am

    But hope must be tempered with realism. Here’s writer Craig Mazin on the conclusion of the “Chernobyl” series:

    “We live on a planet that is under threat, and scientists are warning us, just as they did in the ’70s regarding RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union. Governments are choosing to listen or not listen, and people are choosing to listen or not listen. But the truth, the globe, the thermometer, doesn’t care. And the RBMK didn’t care either. It didn’t matter what they wanted to do that night. It didn’t matter that the fatal flaw of the RBMK reactor was a state secret. The reactor didn’t care. And that’s the problem we struggle with. We are attempting to make ourselves superior to fact, and we are not.”

    • jh  On June 10, 2019 at 2:12 pm

      the problem with that is nihilism. If nothing you do can change the future, why not just give in.

      The purpose of hope (hopefully tempered with a pessimistic outlook of humanity. You can never go wrong when betting on humanity to screw up.) is to give you the extra pick up after you’ve been beaten down and say “I’m going to fight again”. Where hope fails is when the person expects a reward. There is no reward. Once you get past that childish expectation of getting a gold star or a ticket to Heaven or a promotion, you understand that hope is the driver to action.

      The only time you stop is when you are dead. I would suggest that everyone who wants to passively accept what happens should kill themselves. That way, they never have to worry or bother about doing anything.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 10, 2019 at 2:24 pm

        I don’t think that’s Mazin’s point. He’s advocating for honesty and the recognition that facts exist and we cannot wish them away just because they’re inconvenient.

        Everyone knew the USSR lied, but no one thought they would lie about something that could potentially have rendered half of Europe uninhabitable. Recognizing that isn’t nihilism, it’s realism.

    • Guest  On June 10, 2019 at 2:24 pm

      Call me an optimist, Larry, but I’d like to think the temperance you’re calling to attention is implicit in Doug’s nice piece, so thank you for drawing it out. You’re right, being a hopeful gardener still allows for being foolish or wise. For example, a hopeful gardener who boils their seeds before planting. Because any given harvest is not guaranteed, the future is inscrutable, the hopeful and boiling gardener is righteously unphased by barren harvests. But however comforting it may be, is this hope wise or foolish?

      Being comfortable with not knowing *hopefully* doesn’t mean we should throw out the lessons of history, evidence, data, etc.

      Maybe there’s a fine line between spending time analyzing, say, poll results and bullheadedly ignoring polling data altogether. Don’t agonize, but don’t stick your head in the sand either, right? In 2016 we saw polling consistently showing Bernie as the best chance against Trump, and after Clinton took the nomination, Bernie team members were ignored by the Clinton camp when begging them to spend resources in the very States Trump was able to flip, all for naught. So, to give the exact opposite advice of the piece, maybe a bit of agony is worth the price of entry if your other choice is willful ignorance.

      The semantics may not fit here, but the sentiment does for the old Antonio Gramsci line, formulated during his imprisonment under Mussolini – a pessimist because of intellect, but an optimist of will.

  • wcroth55  On June 10, 2019 at 10:46 am

    This article is spot-on. It is far too easy to dwell on possibilities, to worry, to complain. Virginia Satir said “Most people prefer the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty.” The flip side of which is “power goes begging”.

    There are always things we can do, and it’s not just donating money or going door-to-door during campaigns. Last week I volunteered at a high school graduation “lock in” party — and I arranged for every one of 300 students to get a flyer I wrote on how to register to vote. Not bragging — SUGGESTING.

  • Stephen Morillo  On June 10, 2019 at 11:30 am

    As a sports fan who utterly ignores “mock drafts” and preseason polls on the same principle outlined here, I agree that this post is right on. Don’t predict, work for the change you hope for — informed by facts, of course! No hope should be blind to reality.

    • mary  On June 10, 2019 at 11:33 am

      Yep, those pulled hamstrings can really mess up a season (-:

  • philipfinn  On June 10, 2019 at 11:48 am

    As an Atheist, I find myself frequently comforting believers by reminding them, “The last time I checked, [faith/hope/love] is still a virtue…” and still worth practicing.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On June 10, 2019 at 12:21 pm

    Wouldn’t the person who has Hope his garden will still prosper after a drought but better off doing something else to get food rather than passively waiting for the rains that are already too late?

    • Nancy Minter  On June 10, 2019 at 12:59 pm

      That’s why a hopeful gardener has rain barrels.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On June 10, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    I look forward to the coverage of Trump’s European trip. I winder what he said during his D-Day memorial speech: “There were good people on both sides”?

  • Maureen  On June 10, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    I thank you for this well written, well needed article.

  • weeklysift  On June 10, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    Reading the comments, I’m mostly inclined to let the post speak for itself, but I will say a couple things: Nothing about hope requires that you ignore reality. The difference, which I think several other commenters recognized, is that you refuse to desert the present for the future, or to imagine that your vision of the future (whether you’re picturing it positively or negatively) is more certain than it actually is.

    • Guest  On June 11, 2019 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks for the clarification, Doug. But I took one of Larry’s underlining points to be that there’s nothing about hope that requires you to embrace reality either. In this way, rather than a virtue, hope can be seen as ethically neutral, or possibly as misleading as despair. Your call to refuse to desert the present, to engage creatively, and to admit that our crystal balls are cloudy, would then leave us on firmer ground than either hope or optimism.

      Can’t resist the Greta Thunberg quote: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

  • David Blair  On June 10, 2019 at 10:54 pm

    Vaclav Havel made this distinction in a book published in 1990, in English, as Disturbing the Peace. Here’s a link: https://www.vhlf.org/havel-quotes/disturbing-the-peace/

    Joanna Macy has powerful things to say about hope also!

  • Anonymous  On June 16, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    Hope? Optimism?

    I don’t clearly relate to either. The current scientific story of creation and humanity’s place within it is probably not entirely true, but it’s what we have at present. Within this story it appears to me that (1) our universe is so constructed that it spontaneously progresses from simplicity to complexity, but (2) the fate of a specific loci, for instance, civilization on planet earth is not ordained. That is, over the entire universe most loci will succeed in becoming more complex but others will fall apart and decay into chaos. I think civilization on planet earth is at a cusp point. In the next century or so human civilization will either advance or falter, perhaps fatally. This is a new situation for humankind. Previously we just followed the dictates of our planet’s evolution. Now we’re at the point where we can materially affect our planet’s evolution, at least in the near term.

    Do we now move toward a more just, more knowledgeable, more creative, more humane, more enlightened civilization, or do we slip into a Third Reich, a 1984, a Soylent Green, or other sort of dystopia? It’s presently up for grabs, I think.

    While it is conceivable that my own individual actions might influence the outcome, this doesn’t motivate me. I’m neither hopeful nor optimistic, I just try to continuously assess the probabilities. But I find that my own sense of well-being is enhanced when I judge that my actions are roughly aligned with the universe’s built-in bias to evolve. So I keep learning, and keep trying to productively connect with other human beings, not because I have hope, but just because it feels good.

  • Meredith  On August 12, 2019 at 9:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Dangerous Meredith and commented:
    The Weekly Sift is one of my favourite current affairs blogs. This blog lays out an elegant but useful distinction between hope and optimism which I found helpful.


Leave a Reply to Stephen Morillo Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: