When I was living and working in Switzerland there was perhaps nothing that pushed my buttons more than hearing from people back home about how wonderful my life must be. As if the Alps and Swiss chocolate and delicious cheese were somehow an immutable barrier to suffering or unhappiness. This presumption that I was living the dream added an extra layer of guilt to what were, in fact, quite difficult years in my life. Difficult, because in some fundamental ways, my work in Switzerland was out of alignment with several of my core values, and staying put meant stifling parts of myself that I didn’t really want to stifle. But leaving was even more complicated than staying, and full of heartbreak too, so it took some time to get up the gumption to go.
In response to these Pollyanna-ish remarks from well-meaning friends and family, I developed a distaste, and then a disdain, for people who seemed to solely focus on the positive. Their optimism didn’t feel joyful—it felt invalidating, myopic, and somewhat stupid. The optimistic mindset felt like it left out a huge swath of the human experience—grief, heartbreak, uncertainty, disillusionment. Optimism in some very important ways felt in conflict with reality.
But, cynicism, it turns out, seems to be in conflict with reality too. The notion that the future is grim, and all doom and gloom is just as myopic as dwelling in the land of optimism. Both presume constancy, which is out of touch with the reality of evolution and change.
Part of this is a debate of semantics. My definitions of optimism and cynicism occupying the extremes of a spectrum do not align with how many people use these terms, but for my own internal lexicon, I’ve been wanting to land on a word that is large enough to hold both the dark and the light. Krista Tippett, in her book, Becoming Wise, offers the word “hope” as an antidote to these other more reductionist terms. She writes: “Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes a spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
This concept feels large enough and nuanced enough to invest in. David Foster Wallace, in his famous Commencement Speech, “This is Water” says this: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
Choosing your altar is critical and life defining. I don’t worship at a religious altar or at the altar of science. One seems too content to overlook and the other too impelled to overcome the fundamental irrationality and limited scope of the human mind. I want an altar that acknowledges that we cannot know the full story, that in life, in the words of the poet David Whyte, “everything [both good and bad] is waiting for you,” and that the redemptive thing we have as humans is the capacity to approach this wild world with a willingness to be surprised, and to be humbled and uplifted by that which we do not know. "Hope is a choice, that becomes a practice that becomes a spiritual muscle memory.” Hope has to be cultivated. It is an altar you build—not one that you can inherit or buy. I don’t want to spend any more time paying homage to the altars of optimism or cynicism—both feel flat. Hope, on the other hand feels like a choice worth making, again and again.