Optimism and Hope

I recently finished the book Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age by Bruce Rogers-Vaughn.  It is aimed specifically at pastors and others in caring professions, but I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the ways that neoliberal capitalism negatively affects our social, interpersonal, and psychological health and (more importantly) what we can do to reverse those troubling trends.  

Rogers-Vaughn spends much of the book defining neoliberalism and convincing readers of the many ways these kinds of systems create a new and unique form of distress he calls “third-order suffering.”  This new form of suffering underlies other, more overt forms of suffering but creates a normalized and ongoing sense of isolation, shame, and meaninglessness that has no clear cause.  By the end of the book, he suggests three interrelated things that we as a society must do: cultivate and strengthen collectives, care for souls, and amplify hope. 

All three of these are important, yet his final suggestion has stuck with me, especially now that we are in the season of Advent.  Specifically, I keep coming back to the way he contrasts hope with optimism.  He writes, “Whereas optimism indicates a belief that things will turn out okay, hope remains embedded in visceral suffering.”  And later, “Optimism depends upon calculation, and is narcissistic, the object being desired for oneself.  Hope, by contrast, is open to a future it cannot control, and what is longed for is ‘for us.’”  These are strong contrasts that rely heavily on the way he has defined the terms in the broader text.  Even without needing to draw such a strong distinction between them, I find the contrast to be thought provoking.  

Optimism can too easily be used to bypass or negate the realities of suffering, whereas hope finds its power crying out in the midst of suffering.  Optimism has a 20-point plan for keeping its face toward the sun, while hope knows that progress usually finds its way by the moon with its cycles of waxing and waning.  Optimism is never quite sure what to do when things fall apart, but hope never left those broken spaces in the first place.  

This Advent season as we explore what it means to be “Awake in the Dark,” I hope that we can light a candle for this kind of hope.

[If you’re interested in learning more about Rogers-Vaughn’s work, HERE is Part 1 of a five-part interview (with links to the other parts at the bottom of the page).]