Hope Without Optimism


Dear Will:

One of my many (and most glaring) character flaws is that I care way too much whether or not my team wins. That hyper-competitiveness has served me well only to the degree that it has driven me to strive for excellence in most of my endeavors (home repair being a conspicuous contrapositive). And while I have been somewhat successful over the years at suppressing those emotional urges, they still manifest themselves from time to time in awkward circumstances: during the scramble for the final wedge in Trivial Pursuit, for example, or in a three-legged race at the company picnic. It’s embarrassing.

Where that desire to win manifests itself most darkly is in the world of competitive team sports. If my Bruins lose a close one, it can send me into a funk that lasts for days, especially (as it so often seems) when they should have won. If I had the misfortune of being from, say, Cleveland, this competitive spirit might not have such a firm hold on me. But I grew up cheering for the Dodgers and Lakers and UCLA, teams with enough history of success that victory and even championships are often a distinct possibility, resulting in expectations in profound disproportion to objective reality.

So you can imagine, without any creative effort, how I was feeling last night when my Dodgers, who haven’t won a championship since before my children were born, blew multiple leads and lost 13-12 to the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series. Now, if you are a well-adjusted human, you might reasonably think: I didn’t even realize the Dodgers were in the World Series; or, What’s the World Series? But if you’re me, and the Dodgers end up losing the Series, you can expect to relive the agony of last night’s debacle for years to come. I still get aggravated by how the USA got swindled out of an Olympic gold medal in basketball by the USSR. In 1972. When I was 12.

Unlike the stock market, which provides a buyer for every seller, the sports world is completely imbalanced, with devastated losers far outnumbering euphoric winners in any given season. In a playoff, in fact, every team but one ends its year with a disappointing loss. And if we shrink that world down to mine (the only one that TRULY matters in this context) the moments of euphoria are infrequent and precious. For even though my teams have a history of occasional excellence, history fades even as the possibility of a letdown casts a heavy, constant shadow over whatever is happening right now.

As a remedy to all of this, years ago I committed myself to the following rooting philosophy: Hope without optimism. I believe in it so firmly that I have taught it like a catechism to my children. For I believe that that philosophy carries with it both the fervent possibility of victory and the realistic expectation that we’ll miss the winning field goal in the final seconds. It’s my attempt to maximize the prospective euphoria while mitigating the nearly-inevitable devastation. It’s not a perfect remedy, but it helps.

All of this runs counter to what Jesus taught, of course. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” He said, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Other scripture encourages us to have “a perfect brightness of hope,” knowing that, if we endure well the trials that may lie ahead, in the end we shall have eternal life (see 2 Nephi 31:20). That is the promise of Christ’s resurrection and Atonement: the promise of victory for everyone, a championship even for the most beleaguered among us. His message was all about both hope AND optimism.

Which is a very good thing—especially if the Dodgers blow this Series, which they should have won. Because if that happens, I could just die.



Enough IS Enough


Dear Will:

Last week I found myself in Cody, Wyoming, for my mother’s interment. My six siblings and I enjoyed the opportunity to give my mother a final tribute and send-off, in spite of weather in the high 30s. (There’s a reason I live in California.)

On my final day there, I visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (highly recommended), a marvelous museum that features local and Native American artifacts, a natural history center, the largest collection of firearms you can imagine, and a wonderful display of Western art (including pieces by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and others). And buffalo. Lots and lots of buffalo. (Technically: the American Bison, but they didn’t call him Bison Bill, now did they?) The Center has such an abundance of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts that feature or include the buffalo that you get the accurate impression that that very big animal was a very big deal back in the day. (One source estimates that at one point 20 to 30 million bison roamed North America.) For the Lakota and other native tribes, the beast was essential for food, shelter, clothing, and culture—a sacred symbol of life itself.

In contrast, one exhibit describes how fur traders in the 1800s swept through the area, slaughtering buffalo by the hundreds, hauling off their pelts and leaving the remaining carcasses to rot on the windblown prairie. To reinforce the disparity in attitude and approach, the display includes a huge pile of buffalo hides seemingly ready to ship off to market, with a reminder nearby that at one point there may have been as few as 300 bison—TOTAL—left in the world. For me, the display was particularly poignant because I was in the midst of reading Jack London’s classic White Fang, where, in one particularly vivid scene, London describes how the indigenous people of the Yukon resorted to eating their sled dogs during one harsh, winter famine. As I imagined the Wyoming landscape, dotted with discarded buffalo meat, I thought of how White Fang’s captors even found themselves eating hunks of leather to stay alive.

Some might see the traders’ excesses as the natural course of things—the mere harvesting of what God set out on this planet for His children. After all, has He not said: “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (D&C 104:17)? That is true. But at the same time He has also said: “For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures” (D&C 104:13).

The Parable of the Talents makes this point clear. You’ll recall that in that parable Jesus tells of a rich man who, prior to a long journey, gives each of three servants money “according to his several ability.” Upon his return, the rich man rewards those servants who judiciously invested and thus increased their endowment, and he chastises the one who failed in his stewardship. To me it is apparent that God will hold each of us accountable for how we use (or misuse) the abundance with which He blesses us. There may be “enough and to spare,” but there is nothing in that promise of bounty to suggest that we should be profligate or wasteful with regard to what we have been given.

The good news in all of this is that the bison are making a dramatic comeback, with a current population of around half a million—a huge improvement over the last 100+ years. In our drive through Yellowstone last weekend, they wandered freely, even stopping our car at one point while they lolled about on the highway. Carefully, we maneuvered around them, grateful for the chance to see up close this mighty symbol of God’s bounteous goodness.


Go, and Do Thou Likewise

SamaritanDear Will:

I’m not going to rehash the ugliness of what happened recently in Charlottesville except to say that it put on full display the worst side of humanity. It was all so awful, in fact, that the Church was moved to issue a public statement reiterating its stance on the issue of racial discrimination and hatred: “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.”

Weirdly, even that was not enough. Just two days later, the Church felt compelled to issue a further clarification inasmuch as some had twisted the previous release somehow to justify racial bigotry. The second statement was unequivocal: “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”

In the midst of all of this, I couldn’t help thinking that we would all be better off if more people simply went to Sunday School and paid attention. On the question of how to treat those with whom we may not agree—particularly those of a different ethnic or religious persuasion—Jesus taught very clearly:

25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

26 [Jesus] said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

28 And [Jesus] said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. . . .

(I suppose I should pause here to point out that Samaritans were considered foreigners whose religious beliefs were abhorrent to the Jews.)

. . . and when [the Samaritan] saw him, he had compassion on him,

34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

So on the question of how to treat those with different racial or ethnic or religious backgrounds, we might reasonably ask: “What would Jesus do?” And the answer is simple: He would be like the Samaritan.