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Optimism is all very well, but it takes courage to hope

Optimism is all very well, but it takes courage to hope by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

 Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bright Sided has been making waves. Subitled “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” she points to the absurdity, sometimes even the danger, of seeing only the good in events. And of course, she’s right – up to a point.

The gospel of success and the power of positive thinking have dominated American thinking for a century, in part, Ehrenreich argues, as a reaction against an earler, austere Calvinism. But it can easily become a kind of magical thinking. All you have to do is think positively, goes the new creed and positive things will happen to you. Your cancer will be cured. Your loss of a job will become a gateway to success. Reprogramme your mind with images of what you dream of being and that is what you will become. You are what you will yourself to be.

There are many downsides to this, as Ehrenreich reminds us. Not every illness can be cured by thinking bright thoughts. Nothing can hide the fact that unemployment and recession are bad news. A failure to factor in the things that can go wrong spelled disaster both to America’s foreign interventions and its financial institutions. Allan Greenspan blamed the financial crash of 2008 on “irrational exuberance.”

But it’s more subtle than Ehrenreich supposes. What has happened is a failure to understand the difference between optimism and hope. They sound similar but they are quite different. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, if we work hard enough, we can make things better. Between them lies all the difference in the world.

Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope. The prophets of Israel were not optimists. When everyone else felt secure, they saw the coming catastrophe. But every one of them was an agent of hope.

That, it seems to me, is where religion was right and the Enlightenment wrong. I am not one of those who condemns the Enlightenment and all its works. To the contrary, the rise of science and the development of technology have changed all our lives for the better. Try imagining going back to an age before the invention of anaesthetics, and you will know how absurd our nostalgia can be.

But the Enlightenment carried with it the promise of unending progress. Science would unlock the bounty of nature. Reason would banish prejudice. History was an unstoppable upward movement from barbarism to civilization, from war to peace. As the Beatles sang, “It’s getting better all the time.”

Well, it wasn’t and isn’t. Enlightenment optimism, of which the current cult of positive thinking is the latest variant, fails to recognise the limits within which we live, the way every technological advance can do harm as well as good, and the possibility of regression that lurks, dormant but never dead, within the human heart.

But that is no reason for pessimism. It is simply a reminder of how strenuous a virtue hope really is. We all surely know people who survived illness, crisis or setbacks by the power of hope. The great religious leaders were agents of hope. So were Churchill, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Barack Obama became President of the United States.

Jews were a people of hope. By discovering the God who created the universe in love, they became the first practitioners of hope. No Jew who knows his or her history can be an optimist. We have seen too many great civilizations – ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, medieval Spain and pre-War Germany – lapse into barbarism and murderous hate. You don’t need to be an optimist to have hope.

Religious faith is not “positive thinking.” It is not naïve optimism. It is not a matter of seeing the world as we would like it to be, and then believing that mere wishing or praying will make it so. God never promised that the world would get better of its own accord.

Faith means seeing the world exactly as it is and yet not giving up the belief that it could be otherwise, if we are ready to act with others to make it so.  Faith is realism that has been touched by hope. And hope has the power to transform the world.

(First published in The Times, May 2010)