Coming Up Short
October 14, 2012
Reading: Hope, Not Optimism by Bruce T. Marshall
Optimism, as I understand it, is an attitude of expectation that a particular result will occur – that a person will recover from an illness, that we will achieve a specific goal, that the Publishers Clearing House will pick my number from among the billions submitted. The dictionary defines optimism as “an inclination to anticipate the best possible outcome.”Hope is less specific. It’s an attitude that looks for possibility in whatever life deals us. Hope does not anticipate a particular outcome, but keeps before us the possibility that something useful will come of this.
We are told that an optimistic outlook is a good thing, but I’ve rarely found it so. Optimism often leads to disappointment. When the best possible outcome doesn’t occur, we are let down, maybe even feel betrayed.
Optimism then may become its opposite – pessimism, an inclination to anticipate the worst possible outcome.
Hope is more resilient, more enduring, more helpful. In a serious illness, for example, there are often setbacks. In the face of these, optimism may wear down. But hope encourages us to move forward despite the setbacks.
As we pursue our goals in life, optimism may lead us to expectations that are unrealistic and ultimately hurtful. Hope advises us to look squarely at the realities that confront us while remaining aware of the possibilities.
Erich Fromm observed, “To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime. Those whose hope is weak settle for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”
It seems that I am in an age group that is fraught with weddings and babies. This past year alone I have attended half-a-dozen weddings, officiated one and welcomed babies galore into my extended circles of friends. It seems like everyone is fulfilling the same life goals, at least when it comes to family life. In many ways this is a time for joy and celebration as major life milestones are reached and life-long dreams go fulfilled.
What I find fascinating about this whole process is the planning. No sooner do I learn that a friend is expecting a baby, that people start unraveling their dreams for that child. What the nursery will look like, who the first grade teacher might be, and what position he’ll play in football. It’s amazing that within moments of seeing a sonogram picture there’s already a blossoming plan for this child and their life.
And with the weddings, the engagement ring hits that finger and they’re off! Making decisions about table runners and first-dance songs … ya know, the things that really make or break a marriage!
And then there are the friends who have not reached these life milestones they’ve set for themselves. Those who had planned methodically to be married by 25 and have three children in the following ten years …
These friends may have yet to find their perfect match, or have found that person and it didn’t work out … or are struggling with fertility treatments and realizing that their life plan might need to be reworked. After all, there are some things that are out of our control … some goals and dreams that really can’t be planned out. That reality can be so challenging, and we can end up feeling like a failure.
But what is this idea of a life plan? We all have one, really, or at least a rough sketch of what we would like to accomplish or do in our lives. A picture of what we hope our future might look like. An idea of how we can hope to be in the present so that those things can take shape in the future.
But there is another whole level to this life planning business. And it IS a business! There are life planning websites and seminars, life coaches, and conferences that guarantee to get your life on track and help you accomplish all of your goals, or your money back!
The process includes setting long- and short-term goals, working toward them in a diligent and methodical way, and reflecting on the process. These plans offer a way to stay on track and to be successful!
This might be appealing to some of us: those who are struggling to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, or want to move up the ladder at their company. It is appealing to think of a systematic way to achieve our goals. Just follow these eight easy steps and have the spouse of our dreams, the house of our dreams, and the 2.5 kids of our dreams.
These planning tools seem to have all the answers.
They even offer troubleshooting … ways to address our fears, how to deal with people who get in the way, and ways to pick ourselves up and brush ourselves off after failure or setbacks.
Because let’s be honest … failure happens! We can’t possibly achieve every goal we set, or realize every dream we have! It is simply not possible. Unless of course we never set any goals or dreams in the first place.
According to one website I found, one of the ways to bounce back from failure is to have a solid brand.
Now in our consumeristic culture we are familiar with brands. We use terms like “brand new” and have been convinced that a “brand name” is better than the generic version.
A brand name, we are taught, says a lot about the product.
Branding is packaging the way you present yourself to others, what they expect of you, and your consistency in delivering good …. product.
The idea of branding is also sometimes used for churches, or denominations. For instance, Unitarian Universalism is often thought of as the social action church, while the Catholic church is most well known for its charity and care in helping those who need food, or helping them find shelter. A brand is what people expect when they think of you.
So I wonder, what’s your brand?
Are you a person who’s on time? Are you reliable? Are you a good listener? Do you run a great committee meeting, or bake a mean batch of brownies?
Maybe you are none of those things, and that’s your brand. Maybe there are times when you feel more generic than brand-worthy.
In some ways, your brand is who you consistently are in this world and what you bring to it.
I would say that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brand was based in inspiring preaching and activism for equality and justice. While Buddha’s brand was one of compassion and mindfulness that inspired freedom from suffering.
What about Moses? What was his brand?
Are there any ideas that come to you? Go ahead, shout them out.
Well, when I think of Moses I think of leadership, courage, and prophetic words. I think of a prophet from the Bible who was sent on a mission by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, complete with the parting of the Red Sea that left the chariots and the armies to drown in dramatic waves of water.
That’s a brand.
In the book of Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites thru the desert and they travel for forty years until they reach the land of Canaan … the Promised Land.
There are two remarkable aspects of that story that stand out for me.
First, it takes them forty years to reach their destination! Forty years! Can you imagine wandering in the desert for forty years?
What’s interesting is that the geographic region where this took place was actually quite small, and could have been crossed in a much shorter time period. But God wanted to send the people another way, in a strategic manner, so that they would continue their journey toward their goal.
And God enlisted Moses to lead the Israelites through the wilderness.
Now Moses seemed like a logical choice. He was intelligent and from a good family. People seemed to like him, and aside from his stuttering problem, people tended to listen when he spoke.
But really? It had to have been a little disappointing that he took all of those people on a 40 year hike through the desert. There are jokes out there about why it took so long. Jokes about the lack of a GPS, and the fact that Moses, like most men, was too stubborn to ask for directions.
But God wanted to avoid any run-ins with armies that would scare the Israelites and have them running back to the slavery they fled in Egypt. God knew that issues like that could be enough to have a group of people give up on their goal. God also knew that it was necessary for the group to grow more cohesive and established as a tribe. God wanted them to solidify their identity as a group, with established food and marriage practices, and methods of prayer and worship. So that when they entered the Promised Land, they would do so as a united front, with a solid identity and ready to face the challenges there.
Whether Moses was aware of this plan or not remains somewhat unclear. But regardless, Moses followed whatever map or directions made sense to him at the time. I’m sure this was frustrating to him and to his followers.
Moses was questioned by them about the plan, and it’s pretty clear he didn’t always have a solid answer for them. The journey was unknown, even to him, and still he had to lead them through it. That sounds like a pretty difficult task to me and a pretty tough goal to reach.
Which brings me to the second remarkable part of that story. Just before the group is about to reach their destination, they look out over the valley toward the land of Canaan. They’re there! They’ve reached the Promised Land!
And Moses dies. So he never sees his people living in the Promised Land. After forty years of wandering with them in the desert, Moses never fully sees his goal realized.
If the goal was for him to join them in Canaan, he doesn’t accomplish his goal.
But, if the hope was to help the Israelites establish those practices that would set them apart from all others. If it was to establish an identity for those people as they journeyed to a strange land. Then his goal was accomplished, and the proof of that accomplishment is the still vibrant and very much alive Jewish faith that remains to this day.
In some ways, the accomplishment of the goal is all in the perspective. It is in the difference between optimism and hope. Because the goal was the establishment of hope for a tribe of people to survive, not for the specific plan Moses set out to accomplish. The goal was not based in optimism that everything would be okay and things would go smoothly … I think that probably became clear to the people somewhere at the twenty year mark of wandering! But the goal was based in the hope that something useful would come out of this.
Of course this makes sense now, thousands of years later, as we have seen the result of that story, and the continued livelihood of Judaism to this day. We have that perspective by virtue of time and space.
It is necessary to look at the possibility presented by a situation … even one that seems like a failure. Perhaps if the Israelites were to have entered the Promised Land after journeying only five years, they might have been killed. Perhaps they would have split up, and not stayed together as a cohesive whole. This would have been a disaster in the long run and created fragmentation and disruption. So, perhaps it was best that they had to wander so long … forced to bond together.
Now this sounds a little like I’m saying that God has a plan for us, or that everything happens for a reason. I’m not sure it’s that simple. But I am sure that things happen … good things and bad things, challenging things and affirming things. Things happen to me and to you, and because of me and because of you. And how we react matters.
Last month I met with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which is the credentialing body of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This meeting was the next step in my journey of becoming a fellowshipped UU minister. It was a meeting with very high stakes. If it went well, I would be fellowshipped and would enter into search for a congregation to serve as their minister. If it didn’t go well, I would be put on hold.
Well, as many of you know and as I wrote about in my column this past month, the meeting didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I received a Category III, which essentially means that I will need to meet with the committee again before being granted preliminary fellowship.
As you might imagine, this was not what I had planned. If I had mapped out my life and written a strategic plan for myself and my ministry, this would not have been a part of it. It was a detour, a speed bump, and by some definitions a failure to meet my goal.
After the meeting I felt a lot of emotions and had lots of reactions: anger, frustration, and regret. Sadness, exhaustion, and questioning of my abilities. But my response that surprised me most was none of these …
It was embarrassment.
I was mortified. I didn’t want to speak to anyone or tell them about the interview. I didn’t want to go through the details or talk about the answers I had given that weren’t up to par. I didn’t want to face my colleagues, classmates of mine who had soared through their interviews with flying colors and were eagerly awaiting the moment when they could officially enter into search for a congregation.
I wanted none of that. I felt so embarrassed to have come up short on my goal.
I flashed back to being the captain of my high school soccer team, the one that lost every single game for two seasons. We were 0 and 36. Game after game we would walk off the field, with our heads bowed, another one for the books.
And I remembered a conversation with the Athletic Director, where he insisted that this experience was “character-building.”
I knew that this experience with the Committee could be viewed in that same way, as a character-building experience, one that humbled me and would help me grow.
But in that moment I didn’t want to grow … I wanted to be fellowshipped!
I was disappointed.
And an experience can only really be character-building if we are actively and consciously working to make it so. Feeling knocked down, stepped on, over-looked, doesn’t build our character. But focusing on and remembering those who lift us up and brush us off does build our character.
And so I came to church the following Sunday. I helped to lead worship and I gained some perspective. I love this calling of ministry, and that is my goal: to love Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalism and this world. And that meeting was just that, a meeting. A snapshot in time that shapes my experience and helps me to grow into my ministry.
But it does not define me.
My friends, that is the beauty of religious community. When we come together each week for worship, and during the week for meetings and projects, we help one another. In our traveling together, we help build courage to take risks, to be bold, and to set high goals. But perhaps more importantly, as people of faith in religious community with one another, we create a space to lift one another up and brush one another off.
We are called to travel together, to plan together, and to cry together when those plans fail.
May we journey together in a way that fosters hope, so that in our times of struggle we see the possibility in a situation.
We may not know what the future will bring, but we must bring ourselves to the present and to the future.
Amen. Blessed be.