June 1, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

     Can one be a really good person and also a pessimist? No example of such a one jumps to mind. All the good people I know from the records of history and personally are, at heart, optimists. Religious figures are, if only because they are bearers of good news. I think of such figures as Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Gandhi, Schweitzer, and Bonhoeffer. One of them, Francis of Assisi, even gave the impression of being lunatically happy! As for today’s world, one reason we so easily accept the idea that children are good is that they are often happy. Little boys and girls rarely walk, for walking–putting one foot forward, then another–calls for a seriousness of mien that is not their nature. Children skip, hop, and jump. Their bright shining faces, their shy smiles, and body-shaking laughter, their barely containable exuberance may well be the form of worship that pleases God most. In a bad mood, I seek the company of the very young. Their joy shames my dourness and dissipates it. As for adults, their good qualities may not be quite so exuberantly manifest; nevertheless, in everything they say and do, they show a deep trustfulness in life and world that spreads a calm well-being in the midst of turbulences and misfortunes. Suppose I am in an airplane that seems permanently glued to the runway. What would I want for solace? A sandwich, a glass of water, and cool air from the overhead vent. What else? A good human being in the next seat.

     Can pessimism be merely a matter of temperament and/or intellectual fashion? Some are born to see the glass half full, others are born to see it half empty. In modern times, seeing the glass half empty is considered more profound than seeing it half full. Luther, Goethe, and Tolstoy qualify as good people. They were certainly accomplished, their accomplishments made possible at least in part by their belief that what they set out to do was not only necessary but eminently good in itself. Why, then, did they profess pessimism? Luther went so far as to say that rather than live through another forty years he would give up his hope of heaven. Goethe and Tolstoy were robust figures, not sickly aesthetes. Yet Goethe could say that, at bottom, his life had been nothing but pain and burden. He was Sisyphus, pushing a rock up the mountain only to have it roll back, again and again. Tolstoy lived fully–a man intoxicated with life, yet believed in his darker moods that it was a cruel and stupid cheat (Richard Cavendish, The Power of Evil).

     Seeing only the dark side commands respect. Seeing only–and even predominantly–the bright side invites derision. Mature men and women should live in the real world and not in a fool’s paradise. What about children? Don’t they live in a fantastical world, a fool’s paradise? And don’t we adults actually encourage them to sojourn there in the belief that it nurtures their physical, mental, and spiritual health? Can what is good for children be poison for adults? Isn’t there something suspicious about the adult’s fear of fantasy? May it not also be a fear of openness–a lack of generosity? In any case, what is realism? Why is seeing the glass half full less realistic than seeing it half empty?

Best wishes,



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