Hope Without Optimism

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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 race 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.

PW

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Did This One with My Eyes Closed

 

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Dear Will:

I hope you will not think me especially loutish when I admit that sometimes I have a hard time staying awake at the ballet. And at the symphony. And pretty much in any meeting that involves sitting and listening passively. As long as I stay locked into the subject at hand, I’m fine. But should my mind wander, even briefly, I turn into Captain Nod, that sag-eyed, bobble-headed drooper at the back of the conference room (or at the front of the chapel). Years ago I started taking notes during church services simply to keep myself from fading. It works. Most of the time.

I don’t buy tickets in the orchestra section hoping to get in a good nap, mind you. It’s just that sometimes the body takes over no matter what efforts the mind might undertake to remain in control—especially if the room is dark and stuffy and the guy with the pointer is a little (how shall I put this?) soporific. In desperate moments I’ll occasionally stand and walk around during someone else’s presentation in order fend off an eye-fluttering face-plant, but sometimes even that doesn’t work: I once nodded off while standing in a dimly-lit conference room in Bordeaux when jetlag, PowerPoint, and a languid Frenchman teamed up to carry me off to Monde Somnolent in spite of my best efforts to remain alerte—which I believe is French for not keeling over mid-snore. (It could be worse: I have a friend who has been known to doze off during a one-on-one conversation . . . in the middle of his own sentence. We keep such friends around so that we can feel better about ourselves. It works. Most of the time.)

It takes only one snorer during Act II of Sleeping Beauty (a moment of irony lost on no one at the ballet) to know that you are not alone in your inability to stay awake on command. Even so, I find my greatest reassurance in scripture: No doubt you’ll recall that even Peter, James, and John—Jesus’s most trusted friends—could not keep their eyes open on what was the Most Important Night in the History of the World. As Jesus prayed the most sacred of prayers—to which they had been invited as especial witnesses—His senior apostles, in spite of themselves, drifted off to sleep. Disappointed though He must have been, Jesus showed that He understood well the limitations of the mortals around Him when He said: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

The compassion and love Jesus showed in that moment shows that that He gets me. He understands that sometimes my shortcomings are too much for even my very best intentions. The flesh is weak. When elsewhere He promises that his “grace is sufficient,” He means that He’s got my back, that He can make up for all of the lapses that really matter—and then some.

That’s why I take particular solace from this verse of scripture: “The Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind” (D&C 64:34). Flawless execution would be an unreasonable standard. But willingness and effort? That I can do. It might not get me through those adagios that seem always to show up in the second movement, yet it fills me with enough hope to get me through this life and into the next.

But just in case: If you could wake me for the resurrection, I would really appreciate it.

PW

 

Illustration: Pat Bagley

What Do You Say?

Dear Will:

A friend of mine died last week. He was only 57, and as far as most of us knew, he was in reasonably good health. But then he broke his leg, which led to an infection, which led to pneumonia, and before we knew it he was on life-support. On Monday night, his wife of 30 years honored his wishes and instructed his doctors to disconnect the equipment that was keeping him alive. Within 15 minutes he was gone.

What a jolt. Those of us on the periphery had been told that he was slowly improving, but then last weekend he took a final, fatal turn for the worse. As you might imagine, his wife was devastated—is devastated. As she said to me: “We were supposed to grow old together. Now what am I supposed to do?”

What do you say to someone in a moment like that? Mostly you offer trite words of consolation: “I’m so sorry. He was a great guy. It’s not fair that you should lose him at such an early age.” And on and on. But as I said, such pronouncements, however sincere, are trite at best. They do not begin to provide substantive solace or meaningful counsel.

The truth is that the only way to get one’s bearings after the unexpected loss of a loved one is through words of eternal significance. When my father died last year, those were the only words that brought me any sense of comfort. I remember that the words of Job came repeatedly to mind at that time: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). Knowing, as I did, that life extends beyond this mortal existence made it much easier for me to accept his death.

The scriptures teach that faith leads to hope. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland put it this way:

Faith, Mormon taught, leads to hope, a special, theological kind of hope. The word is often used to express the most general of aspirations—wishes, if you will. But as used in the Book of Mormon it is very specific and flows naturally from one’s faith in Christ. . . .

What is the nature of this hope? It is certainly much more than wishful thinking. It is to have “hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise” [Moroni 7:41]. That is the theological meaning of hope in the faith-hope-charity sequence. With an eye to that meaning, Moroni 7:42 then clearly reads, “If a man have faith [in Christ and his atonement] he must needs [as a consequence] have hope [in the promise of the Resurrection, because the two are inextricably linked]; for without faith [in Christ’s atonement] there cannot be any hope [in the Resurrection].” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon [1997], 334–35).

No doubt there will be the chance to talk of such things in the days ahead. In the meantime, I pray for those my friend left behind—his wife, his siblings, his close friends—who find themselves wondering about death-too-soon and life hereafter. May they come to know, as I do, that “by man came death, [and] by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

PW