In my first church, whenever we had a meeting for business and someone would share an idea, there was this guy who’d stand up and say, “Let me tell you why that won’t work.” Sometimes, just to mix things up, he’d say, “Let me just play the devil’s advocate, …” then tell us why something was a bad idea. I thought it odd at the time, and still do, that anyone in the church would want to be the devil’s advocate, but it was a role he seemed to enjoy. At first, I tried to take him seriously and listen to his concerns, but after a while it occurred to me his pessimism was his way of exerting power over the rest of the meeting, that it acted as an Off switch, preventing us from doing anything helpful. The problem was solved at one of our meetings, when he stood and asked, “Do you want to know what I think?,” and the clerk of the meeting said, “Not particularly.” It was about the finest piece of clerking I had ever seen and I think about it every time I see pessimism rear its ugly head.
A few weeks ago we watched a Ted Talk about the Harvard Study of Adult Development that revealed the key to a good life was good relationships. Not money, not fame, not success in business, but good relationships. So we’ve been thinking about the characteristics of good relationships. There’s not a set list of characteristics. These are my observations based on my own relationships and the good relationships I’ve seen others enjoy.
Last week, I said in good relationships we allow others to be their authentic selves, while at the same time being our authentic selves. If someone’s authentic self is repulsive to us, that’s a good clue we might not want to be in relationship with them. We don’t wish them ill, we still want the best for them, but we don’t engage them in a relationship.
This week I want to suggest another characteristic of good relationships and this is the quality of optimism or aspiration. Good relationships tend to be positive, optimistic, and aspirational. The relationship is not burdened by cynicism, pessimism, or apathy. It faces life, especially the difficulties of life, with mutual hope, trust, and confidence. People in good relationships realize the toxicity of gloom and negativity, so are careful not to let those traits become the medium in which their relationships marinate.
By optimism, I do not mean a false or forced cheerfulness based on fantasy or self-delusion. I mean the determination to make your shared life count for something beyond your own comfort, power or privilege. Optimism is the commitment not only to hope for the best, but to see and work for the best. In comparison, pessimism is a selfish fixation on one’s own difficulties, affecting not just your own mood and disposition, but the mood and disposition of others.
The reason we don’t enjoy being around pessimistic people is because it diminishes our own spirits, sapping our lives of confidence and joy. We all know people who have that effect on us. There’s this guy I’ve known for probably 50 years, we were in school together, and he’s always complaining about how everything sucks, how nothing ever works out for him. He isn’t destitute, he doesn’t have leprosy, but you’d think no one on earth had it worse than him. So there we were at our class reunion a few years ago, I was sitting at a table chatting with some childhood friends, and he comes over, sits down at our table, which is fine, it’s not the cool table, anyone can sit there. But he begins talking about how bad his life is, how nothing ever goes right, and by the way, what’s wrong with women that they don’t want to date him? Why won’t they date me?”
A woman sitting at the table said, “It’s hard enough being a woman without adding to our difficulties.
Let’s contrast that attitude with Amanda Gorman, the United States first National Youth Poet Laureate, who most of us met for the first time at the inauguration last week. Now if ever there were someone whose pessimism we could understand, it would be her. A female African-American, living in a country that has historically valued none of those things, and yet her poem, The Hill We Climb, was one of the finest tributes to optimism and aspiration I’ve ever witnessed, especially its last powerful lines:
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Amanda Gorman has written other poems rich in confidence and hope, so this morning I would like to close with her lovely poem, The Miracle of Morning, written during these days of pandemic.
I thought I’d awaken to a world in mourning.
Heavy clouds crowding, a society storming.
But there’s something different on this golden morning.
Something magical in the sunlight, wide and warming.
I see a dad with a stroller taking a jog.
Across the street, a bright-eyed girl chases her dog.
A grandma on a porch fingers her rosaries.
She grins as her young neighbor brings her groceries.
While we might feel small, separate, and all alone,
Our people have never been more closely tethered.
The question isn’t if we will weather this unknown,
But how we will weather this unknown together.
So on this meaningful morn, we mourn and we mend.
Like light, we can’t be broken, even when we bend.
As one, we will defeat both despair and disease.
We stand with healthcare heroes and all employees;
With families, libraries, schools, waiters, artists;
Businesses, restaurants, and hospitals hit hardest.
We ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof,
For it is in loss that we truly learn to love.
In this chaos, we will discover clarity.
In suffering, we must find solidarity.
For it’s our grief that gives us our gratitude,
Shows us how to find hope, if we ever lose it.
So ensure that this ache wasn’t endured in vain:
Do not ignore the pain. Give it purpose. Use it.
Read children’s books, dance alone to DJ music.
Know that this distance will make our hearts grow fonder.
From a wave of woes our world will emerge stronger.
We’ll observe how the burdens braved by humankind
Are also the moments that make us humans kind;
Let every dawn find us courageous, brought closer;
Heeding the light before the fight is over.
When this ends, we’ll smile sweetly, finally seeing
In testing times, we became the best of beings.
And there you have it, friends, the heart of good relationships, that every dawn finds us more courageous; that in testing times, we became the best of beings.