Once elected, President Reagan was famous for a sunny optimism. But as a candidate, he knew that cultivating a relentless pessimism – and taking every opportunity to pin the evidence for that gloomy outlook on his opponent -- was a proven ticket to the Oval Office.
We observed a similar tactic in the last presidential election, and in many before that: it is a classic strategy.
The question is still compelling: "Are we better off today than we were four years ago ... or 10 ... or a generation, or a millennium or two?"
Many people today would answer, "No." Think about it. Every day the news bulletins are dripping with bad- and worse than bad news. This cascade of negative information threatens to overwhelm our fragile sense of well-being.
Watching news reports last week of the sex trafficking and abuse of young Rohingya girls made me question the so-called goodness and progress of our world. How can such inhumanity be happening, and be tolerated in the 21st century? But it is.
I understand why the "good old days" are looking better all the time for so many. But people were claiming the same thing when Ronald Reagan was elected in the 1980’s.
But were they really? That's the question.
These days, finding reasons for pessimism is easy. Based on a random collection of newspaper headlines and “Breaking News” alerts culled from social media, it seems like a no-brainer. It is a lot harder to generate a list of reasons for optimism -- at least from those sources.
But perhaps that is partly true because so many reporters and analysts are working overtime to be pessimistic. Fear and sensationalism sell newspapers, captures television viewers, and leads to the sale of many products in our culture.
An increasing number of “experts,” though, are taking the opposite view: that the times in which we are living are by no means the worst of times. Considering the most important criteria for human well-being, they may even be the best.
On Friday night there was a special program on PBS featuring this attitude.
This buoyant group has been tagged "The New Optimists." Taking a decidedly longer view of history than breaking news programs, they remind us that many aspects of the good old days were not so good at all.
At the end of 2016, The Times of London columnist Philip Collins noted some inspiring milestones recently achieved: the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty fell below 10 percent for the first time; global carbon emissions remained unchanged for the third year running; more than half the countries of the world had made the death penalty illegal; and giant pandas were no longer on the endangered species list.
A few weeks later, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof boldly named 2016 "the best year in the history of humanity." Kristof cited declines in global inequality, a child mortality rate roughly half what it had been in 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity every day.
Were you aware of these significant improvements? Did you find any of them in “Breaking News” programs?
The point is, most news consumers are unaware of these types of positive developments, which are the product of slow, incremental changes.
Positive stories like these are not the stuff of which headlines are made. Isolated incidents -- hurricanes, mass shootings, ethnic unrest and the inhumane brutality it produces – these kinds of events get far more attention, even though their impact on the overall well-being of the human race is insignificant compared to the slow yet steady pace of economic and technological development.
There is a newly formed group attempting to address this concept. They are called the “New Optimists.” The label "New Optimists" is a deliberate foil to "the New Atheists," a group of scientific positivists led by people such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Just as those pessimistic philosophers examine certain findings of modern science and discard Genesis' conclusion that God created the world good, the New Optimists take a broader view and say this is not true.
Writing in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman observes that the New Optimists believe that "our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are -- illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity."
Burkeman he points out this response is an ancient survival mechanism programmed into the human race: "The cave-dweller who always assumed there was a lion behind the next rock would usually be wrong -- but he'd be much more likely to survive than one who always assumed the opposite."
There is an underlying truth here. As John Milton said in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Along this same line of thinking, Richard Rohr adds, "Peace of mind is actually an oxymoron. When you're in your mind, you're hardly ever at peace, and when you're at peace, you're never only in your mind."
Like others, Rohr believes obsessive consumers of news stories -- whether gathered from traditional media sources or from the endless scrolling of social-media feeds -- dwell in their own minds constantly. The result? Anxiety, disquietude, stress, depression, general pessimism.
"The Early Christian abbas (fathers) and ammas (mothers) knew this," says Rohr. They "first insisted on finding the inner rest and quiet necessary to tame the obsessive mind. Their method was first called the “prayer of quiet” and eventually was given the name contemplation.
Another source I read last week observed that the human brain is like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. This is part of that survival instinct. It helps to remind ourselves that, for evolutionary reasons, our negative thoughts are much “stickier”- more predominant and given credibility than the positive ones.
Swedish historian Johan Norberg, author of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (OneWorld Publications, 2017) examines 10 important indicators of human flourishing -- food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the state of the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the conditions of childhood -- and concludes that the human race has seen improvement in all of them. Paraphrasing Norberg, "It wasn't so long ago that dogs gnawed at the abandoned corpses of plague victims in the streets of European cities. As recently as 1882, only 2 percent of homes in New York had running water; in 1900, worldwide life expectancy was a paltry 31, thanks both to early adult death and rampant child mortality. Today, by contrast, it's 71 -- and those extra decades involve far less suffering, too."
Overcoming the drag of pessimistic obsession with "the good old days," demands a fundamental change in perspective. But this180-degree turn toward fact-based optimism is not new -- despite the "New Optimists" label given to the most recent focus.
We find it penned, and sung out loud in Psalm 22, in what is perhaps the most sonorous of all biblical laments.
It is hard to imagine a bigger about-face than what we find here. This psalm of lament, was, of course, the song Jesus quoted on the cross – it begins in abject despair: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
This lament proceeds onward to say; "I am a worm, and not human;" "my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast," to the graphic image, "I can count all my bones."
But then, suddenly, at verse 22 -- just before this morning’s passage begins -- the mood shifts. This a 180-degree turn, from lament to praise: "I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."
The reason becomes clear in verse 24, as the poet praises God who "did not hide from me; but heard when I cried out to God."
So confident is the psalmist in God's reliability -- despite everything – that praises are offered on behalf of those who will come generations later: "Posterity will serve God; future generations will be told about the LORD, and proclaim deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that God has done it!" (vv. 30-31).
Psalm 22 is extremely well-known. Possibly because this psalm is read in virtually every Good Friday service. No doubt, the part with the greatest resonance is the "Why have you forsaken me?"
It is this psalm's somber first part that most of us are likely to know. Curiously, the concluding shout of praise -- despite its world-conquering confidence -- has far less staying power for most readers, if they know it at all.
I never thought much about this until last week when I read a commentary on these verses. In the article the author noted that although the gospel writers only place this first line of the psalm in Jesus' mouth, it is very possible Jesus did not stop there, and continued to recite the entire psalm/poem from the cross.
The commentary suggested that just as modern hymns are often known by their first line, the psalmist's use of the words "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" could be a shorthand way of suggesting that Jesus sang this whole thing, from the cross.
How might it significantly and powerfully change Good Friday services to imagine the crucified Jesus moving from God-forsakenness to praise?
How might it change us? Might it make us a little more optimistic about our own life to know that Jesus included the optimism and confidence of Psalm 22 as he recited these words from the cross?
Reflecting on the crucifixion, most biblical theologians revel in what we might describe as the minor key, emphasizing Jesus' utter despair. Yet, is that truly the most faithful reading? Can we really believe that the learned Rabbi Jesus -- steeped in the Scriptures from childhood -- would have stopped at the first line of lament, failing to recall where Psalm 22 ends?
This is a fascinating question, and one worth thinking about for theological reasons.
Amid the stresses and turmoil of life, we too often find ourselves alternating between the major and the minor key, between total optimism or pessimism. As the psalmist points out, the struggles of life may make us feel hopeless for a time, but upon further prayer and reflection we may discover deeper reasons for optimism and devotion.
This is not the same as the simple, childlike "God will take care of you" faith many of us were taught.
The apostle Paul captures the more deeply paradoxical faith many experience in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."
These two opposite poles of spirituality are symbolized by two prophetic figures in the world of literature: Cassandra and Pollyanna.
The ancient Greek poet Homer gives us the figure of Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. The god Apollo endowed her with the ability to foretell the future, but along with that gift he also gave her a curse: that no one who heard her prophecies would believe her.
Cassandra is infamous as a prophet of doom. Again and again she warns her people of dire sufferings that will come upon them, but because they disbelieve her, she never has the satisfaction of knowing her words have had a beneficial effect.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is another literary figure from a far less exalted source. Pollyanna is the title character of a wildly popular series of children's books by Eleanor H. Porter. The first Pollyanna book was published in 1913 and is still in print. The original novel and its many sequels came to be known as "Glad Books."
Pollyanna is a young girl who is always cheerful and relentlessly positive in her outlook on the world. No matter what misfortunes befall her, no matter what suffering descends upon people she loves, Pollyanna always looks for the silver lining in the storm cloud.
The very name Pollyanna has become synonymous with almost a careless optimism. People who always look to the bright side, even amid the most fearsome darkness, are labeled "Pollyannas."
Pollyannas are assumed to be a little unhinged. They're detached from the cold, hard facts of life. The "Pollyanna principle" is the determination to maintain a sunny outlook, despite all evidence to the contrary.
As followers of Jesus, we may do best to locate ourselves, like the psalmist, somewhere between Cassandra and Pollyanna.
Clearly it is important to be realistic in our assessment of our broken world, with all its trouble and suffering. There's nothing to be gained, for example, by pretending young Rohingya girls are not the victims of sex trafficking today.
It is important to know these kinds of things are happening, and to do what we can to change what is happening. I can write to my representative. I can connect with organizations that specifically work to end human trafficking.
As the psalmist reminds us, there is an important place for songs of lament in the spiritual life.
On the other hand, lament can be overdone. Followers of Jesus who are too quick to condemn the bad things they see around, and too easily given to expect the worst can become people who deny the fundamental goodness of God's creation.
Like so many things in life, we need to find a healthy balance.
This morning, as we pray and reflect on these things may Psalm 22 -- the whole of the psalm, from "Why have you forsaken me?" to "proclaim [the Lord's] deliverance to a people yet unborn" – serve us as a practical guide to achieving that balance, and in following Jesus. Amen