A good friend recently wrote, “My usual optimism is fading.”
I responded, “I am sorry to hear that your optimism is waning – but that is not necessarily a bad thing, for it is better to be realistic than optimistic. And don’t give up hope; there is a difference between hope and optimism.”
So, what is that difference, and can a person actually be hopeful but not optimistic?
Some definitions of optimism and hope sound as if they are synonyms.
Here is the definition from Dictionary.com for optimism: “A disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”
By contrast, hope means to work for, and to wait for, something with the confident expectation and anticipation that it will at some point, sooner or later, be fulfilled.
Optimism is an aspect of a person’s disposition or temperament. People with a sunny temperament are usually optimists; people with dark dispositions are mostly pessimists.
Hope, though, is a theological virtue.
As Jim Wallis writes in his 2019 book Christ in Crisis, hope “is not simply a feeling, or a mood. … It is a choice, a decision, an action based on faith. … Hope is the engine of change. Hope is the energy of transformation.”
Later in that book, Wallis reiterates what he has often said: “Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
And here are wise words from an Irish poet, Seamus Heaney (1939-2013): “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”
So, yes, a person can be hopeful even if they are not optimistic.
Thus, I like what Black theologian/philosopher Cornel West tweeted back in January 2013: “I cannot be optimistic but I am a prisoner of hope.”
A key difference between optimism and hope, as defined/described above, is this: optimism doesn’t demand anything of us (everything is going to be all right!), but hope entails effort as we endeavor to actualize that for which we hope.
Like the Kingdom of God, hope also demands that we work for what we hope for, knowing that it might well be a long time before that hope will be realized.
1 Corinthians 13:13 says, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (NRSV). But faith and hope are a close third and second.
Further, James 2:26 declares, “Faith without actions is dead” (Common English Bible). But isn’t it true to say that not just faith, but both love and hope without actions are also dead?
Love is not simply a feeling or an emotion. It is often said that “love is a verb,” and I believe that is true.
Love is something that is best expressed not in words, but in action. And so it is with hope.
So, how should we approach the future of this country under the current president and Congress?
To be honest, I am not very optimistic about this year’s pending legislation or about the elections of 2022 or 2024. But I am hopeful for the future.
If this year’s legislation doesn’t turn out as I would like, then I will do what little I can to help elect better members of Congress in 2022.
And if the elections of 2022 turn out to be a disappointment, then, again, I will do what little I can to elect the best president and Congress possible in 2024.
If the latter is also a disappointment, then I will begin working for 2028 (although there may be little I can do, for that is the year I turn 90, if I make it that far).
Regardless of what happens, though, I will continue to be hopeful, believing that things will get better later, if not sooner. That is because I trust in the “God of hope.”
Accordingly, Romans 15:13 (NIV) is my prayer for us all: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Spirit.”
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.