Against Optimism

“Balance,” “Positivity.” Every now and again I hear these cliches especially when I recognize that my life isn’t balanced, and not everything is positive.

I’m sympathetic to the need for such pat demands upon our virtues. They offer solace and direction, a map for action. There’s the command: if life is unbalanced, then just balance it! If there’s negativity and sadness, just cheer up!

It seems easy to do. A transformed life is right before you, if you want it.

To some extent, however, I wonder whether or not seeking balance or cultivating an easy sense of optimism is particularly useful. Sometimes our lives are out of balance. We work hard some weeks; we become obsessed with a new song or toy; we jump in headfirst into a hobby and spend every night perfecting the craft. And seeking balance just seems like another task, another criteria by which we can make ourselves fail. So, I must do laundry, cook, exercise AND be “balanced?” And sometimes “balance” just seems like another way to dull passion and temper the enthusiasm that makes life happen.

We’re also told that we must be optimistic and think positively. And yes, our worries are often unfounded; our anxieties are based on idle speculation. Yet, a belief that everything happens for the best, and that there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is profoundly delusional. For many people in the world, moments of happiness are the exception. Suffering is the norm. When we are asked to be perpetually positive, we are often woefully unprepared.

When the rich man comes to Jesus, he calls him “good.” He might as well have called him “balanced” or “cheerful.” Jesus responds, “what are you talking about” by saying “only God is Good.” What makes a Christian isn’t goodness, nor balance, nor optimism. The faith worth having is one that gives us the power to face the facts. And when we can’t face them alone, we do it together.

Because the world is often awkward; it contains uncomfortable suffering; and inconvenient truths. We are less generous than we could be; we could participate in murder when the time is right. We are prone to envy and resentment. We prefer to be deluded by human power, than moved by God’s vulnerability.

All religions want goodness. We desire to be on God’s side so that we won’t get killed. What Jesus wants instead, is for a faith that allows us the strength to handle the hard questions, to recognize that faith itself can be on shaky ground, as precarious as life and death itself.

The rich man asks Jesus for eternal life. Jesus says, follow the rules. The rich man says, “I do.” Then Jesus says, “give it all away.” And the rich man leaves, distressed, missing Jesus’ final answer, because he knows he can’t. What he didn’t understand was the he was asking the wrong questions.

He didn’t hear Jesus say, “All things are possible.” Begin where you need to begin. Perhaps you shouldn’t be asking me all of these questions, but asking yourself. Then, let’s talk.

It is not the pat phrases we need. Not through ourselves must we insist on our own perfection, now neatly labeled being “balanced” or coercing ourselves to be optimistic. Instead, even though we are imbalanced or worried, all Jesus says, it’s not over yet. Which is another way of offering the promise of eternal life.

It’s not over.