Hope vs. Optimism


 I recently came across some old class notes with the heading: hope vs. optimism.

Are hope and optimism the same?  Or do they differ?  If so, how?

My notes tell me that optimism means “everything will work out okay.”  To me, this means that an illness will be cured, a broken relationship reconciled, or the jobless employed.  In other words, the external circumstances of life will be fixed, somehow.

Hope, my notes tell me, is different.  Hope goes deeper.  Though not everything will evolve as I want, hope teaches me that I can trust the process.  The image is that of a dimming wick: things are changing, loss is real, but a light still flickers.  I may not have chosen this loss or difficult circumstance, but perhaps I can learn something, gain insight, and mature into greater wholeness through these changes.  I may even discover some blessings–perhaps not right away, but eventually.

There have been times in my life when I clung desperately to optimism.  I held on tightly, just waiting for “everything to work out okay.”  It was as though I held my breath, trying to control an outcome by doing so!

But when things didn’t work out as I had wanted, I had to make a choice.  I could continue to hang on, usually with great fear and pain, or I could let go and embrace the life that was waiting for me.

This process of moving from optimism to hope is not easy for me.  I’m really good at holding on too tightly and too long to a situation that begs for release.  What is life-giving, I’ve learned, is to understand that when aspirations or desired outcomes no longer serve me or others, I must let go, trust the process of change, and open myself into the light—and lightness—of hope.  And who knows—I may be amazed with the surprises and blessings it brings.

How do you view the difference between optimism and hope?

“The hope that is left after all your hopes are gone–

that is pure hope, rooted in the heart.”

–David Steindl-Rast

The Paradox of Healing

In my work I see many people seeking healing, whether it is of body, mind, or spirit.  No one is alone in this longing; we all need healing because we all share in the brokenness that occurs simply because we are human.  The need for healing is universal.

Not only do individuals need healing, but families, workplaces, religious communities, neighborhoods, institutions, and nations need healing.  Today the world cries out for healing:  war, devastation, pollution, violence, climate change are all reminders of our mutual need for healing.  The very earth cries out for healing.

Healing is not a synonym for cure or achieving perfection.  Healing is not about making perfect what was once imperfect.  Our healing will leave scars, a sign of our woundedness.  Yet our scars reveal the beauty of being human; they become a place of light, hospitality, and healing for others.  As one of my favorite poets, the 12th-century Rumi, says:

 A tailor needs a torn garment to practice his expertise.

The trunks of trees must be cut and cut again so they can be used for fine carpentry.

Your doctor must have a broken leg to doctor.

Your defects are the way that glory gets manifested.  

 I love the paradox of these hopeful words:  The cuts and bruises of life do not diminish my work.  They strengthen it.

There is nothing magical about healing.  Healing is not something done to us.  Healing is participatory.  We participate in our own healing and we invite others to participate in our healing process. In fact, healing usually takes place because of the efforts of many individuals.  Friends, family, doctors, nurses, chaplains, counselors, psychiatrists, mentors, and complementary practitioners all bring their various skills and relationships to the patient, enhancing the healing process.

There’s another paradox to healing: While healing requires our laborious participation, healing is gift.   Again, the poet Rumi reminds us of this paradox:

 Don’t turn your head.  Keep looking at the bandaged place.  That’s where the light enters you. 

And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.


The Light of Hope

Branches Filled with Cherry Blossoms.
Photos from Office.com

Sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words.   When definitions come up short, images say it best.

Hope is one of those concepts that are difficult to describe.  We often talk about hope, long for it and look for it but struggle to define it. Here are some images that might help:

The light at the end of the tunnel

A beam (of hope)

A ray (of hope)

A break in the clouds

Did you notice that each of these images include reference to light?

Here’s one of my favorite images of hope, written by poet Gerhard Frost from his book of poetry, Seasons of a Lifetime: A Treasury of Meditations:

 “If I have two rooms, one dark, the other light, and I open the door between them, the dark room becomes lighter without the light one becoming darker.” 

I often use this metaphor with grief groups to let them know that their dark room of grief will eventually, perhaps slowly but steadily, transform into a room of increasing light.

The light of hope comes to people through various avenues: music, nature, faith, family, friends, hobbies.

How do you build hope for yourself?

butterfly office
Go to “Gratitude: a Blessing” to read about the connection
between hope and gratitude.