Sunday, August 31, 2008

In defense of optimism

I was just reading this month's issue of Psychology Today and came across a quote in an article about style that had me running to my journal to riff on it. It was

"Style is optimism made visible. It presumes that you are a person of interest, the world is a place of interest, and life is worth making the effort for."

Psychology Today is published in NYC and sometimes is nauseatingly slick... it could also be called Psychology Lite, but I still enjoy the articles and learn some interesting stuff from it. My Guilty White American Conscience had already been revulsed by the premise of the article as shown by the pictures of stylish New Yorkers gracing the pages --"style is for people who can afford it", I thought (thinking, of course, not only of child laborers in India, but of my own rummaging through bags of outdated hand-me-downs in middle school and meeting the criticism and laughter of other kids at my selections)-- but this quote struck me.

It's not "style" that's important so much, but visible optimism IS important. It's taken me years, but I think I have learned this. You have to get there somehow. You HAVE to believe that the world is interesting, that there is wonder and beauty in it, that your life is worth making an effort. That optimism has to come from inside of you, or rather has to come from your will plus the work of the Holy Spirit in you. It can't be based on external circumstances, because those change all the time and yes sometimes life does suck. I think you have to get to a point where you can grieve over what's wrong in your life, wrong in the world, without allowing it to drive you to despair.

I'm trying to read all the Wendell Berry books I checked out from Central Library in May before they send cops to my house to confiscate them from me. I've been reading The Way of Ignorance this week and I started Life is a Miracle last night. The first essay in Miracle is called "Ignorance" (evidently he has quite a bit to say on the subject), and deals largely with the topic of the Earl of Gloucester's suicide attempt in King Lear. That sounds yawnilicious, but his main point centers on Edgar, the Earl's son, and his efforts to prevent his father from committing suicide, summed up in his statement "Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again." Berry says

"Edgar's task is to save his father from despair, and he succeeds, for Gloucester dies at last 'twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief...' (v,iii,199). He dies, that is, within the proper bounds of the human estate."

Berry's point is that joy and grief are the proper boundaries of human emotion, and that despair is way out over the edge of those boundaries, a suicidal outlier on the emotional scale. Despair assumes that I have control, and that I have failed. As Kierkegaard says in The Sickness Unto Death, despair is the one sickness that is beyond cure. It negates all possibility of redemption, and in the strange, mysterious dance between our will and God's, it denies God entry into our lives to do His healing work. Jesus could not heal in a town --His hometown-- where they did not believe He could heal, and God will not heal us if we believe we are beyond hope... in other words, if we believe we are more powerful than He is. He'll allow us to persist in our illusion as long as we want.

I stayed up until well after 1 am on Thursday night to watch the live webcast of Radiohead's last concert of their U.S. tour. in Santa Barbara, CA. Anyone who knows me knows that I love me some Radiohead, and I was uber-excited about this. It was a good concert, musically speaking, but the lifelessness of the band members really hit me... particularly Thom Yorke, on whom I've had a rather large-sized crush for a rather long time. At one point, he actually said, "this song's for everyone whose had surgery lately. You're going to die. Sorry." Stupid, not funny, and mean. Now, I think he was reallllllly tired. I think they all were... but I was hit again by the mismatch between the transcendent beauty of Radiohead's music and the futility of their world view, which is openly, publicly Godless. Their music seethes with emotion, passion, and yes sometimes with something quite like despair, but it's very alive... yet somehow, they aren't. and the longer they do music the worse that seems to get, I think.

Contrast that with this morning's musical selection at Chez Moff, John Michael Talbot's The Lover and the Beloved. This is a collection of poems, mostly written by St. John of the Cross, about passionate longing for and passionate union with God. JMT sings these in his warm, comforting tenor accompanied only by himself on acoustic guitar. A friend of mine recently mentioned how he thought praise music sounded like people wanting to make love to God... and I thought, he would FREAK if he heard The Lover and the Beloved. It's a collection of romantic love songs to God and to Jesus and makes most praise music sound like Barney: "I love you, you love me...". I love these songs, though. They are passionate and beautiful and filled with longing for union with God and with Christ. The album came out in 1989, and I acquired it a couple of years after that... which means I was a Christian teenager... which means I was trying not to think about sex all the time and suffering great pangs of conscience at my failures in this regard. Lover and the Beloved was intriguing to me and raised an interesting question: is directing one's romantic passions towards God healthy? I concluded yes, at least for a while... but that's another blog post.

Like any love songs, the poetry of Lover has plenty of frustration, plenty of longing and seeking for God and not finding what is sought... but it doesn't end there. There is a basic expectation that the pursuit is worthwhile, that the object of pursuit is obtainable, and that someday the lover will have their beloved. It's such a marked contrast to Radiohead's lyrics, where the object of love is a torturer, a manipulator, and while obtainable, always a little beyond true reach.

Ok, Moff, what's your point? My point is that faith requires optimism. You can't believe and not believe at the same time. If you are a fundamentally cynical person, or if you value a certain world-weariness and bitterness --if you think that's "cool" or admirable-- then your faith will necessarily struggle and struggle hard. I think I've wrestled with this in myself recently and now I'm coming out on the other end of it... again. Again, I reject cynicism. Again, I reject despair. I proudly proclaim my completely un-cool interest in the world. I get a kick out of simple beauty, and again, I affirm that I will not be shamed into thinking I need to be more intense, more complicated, or darker than I am in my outlook. As a necessary corollary, I will, and do, distance myself from anyone or anything that threatens to pull me away from that, not in narcissistic defense of myself, but in defense of my faith.

And that's all I've got to say about that.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Hope you don't mind me messing in your blog territory. Your "visible optimism" reminds me of a great writer who spoke of the "crime of poverty." Poverty may be triggered by an absence of material things. The negatives seemly largely in the human reaction: a visible lack of spirit, of dissolution. Bad vibes that other people may pick up. On the other hand, I've seen people with very little in the world show a good deal of style and creativity in what they do with the little they have. This is a true optimism, part of the free will we exercise in "our mysterious dance." A pleasure to read. I had no idea that you'd been honing your writer's chops. take care now, --Eric