Are you more of a pessimist or an optimist? Many people lean one way or the other.
The optimist sees a world and Church full of sunshine, good people, and progress. The pessimist sees darkness, selfish people, and decaying societies.
There are reasons to be both, but either one can distort your perception of reality.
Let’s look at the merits and downsides of each and consider a third path.
Reasons to be an optimist.
The 20th century boasts more canonized saints than the previous 19 centuries of Church history combined. We’ve enjoyed a long line of holy popes, including St. Pius X, St. John XXIII, and St. John Paul II. In the American church, the lay apostolate thrives. Many lay evangelists defend the faith and make it more relatable for your average Joe and Jo.
“Heavenly facts” give us the foundation for optimism. Christ has already won the victory over evil. He has opened the gates of heaven to us. Through the sacraments, He gives us the grace we need to share in His victory.
Where optimism goes wrong is when it blinds us to our need for reform. Evil and death are real. They just don’t have the last word.
Reasons to be a pessimist.
Sources of pessimism abound. In the Church, we’ve suffered from the clerical abuse crisis. Vocations are still down. The marriage rate is declining. Many Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence.
But pessimists close themselves off to the many surprising delights that life offers. The result is despair.
When we give in to despair, we forget Christ’s presence in the Church and focus too much on its human dimension. But the Church is both human and divine and human flaws can never destroy its divine foundation.
G.K. Chesterton’s solution.
English writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton proposed a third way that takes the good and rejects the bad of optimism and pessimism. He called it “patriotism,” although he used this word differently than we do today.
By patriotism, he meant a commitment to our reality, which contains joys and sorrows. The optimist thinks everything is better than it is. The pessimist thinks that everything is worse than it is. The patriot simply says, “It is.” And he or she commits to that reality because it’s his or her own.
We shouldn’t love reality because it’s better or best. We should love it because it’s ours — including all the joys and sorrows.
An example: Say you encounter a flower in a field. Instead of thinking about how it may be improved in a lab or wither and die, you choose to delight in the flower as it is.
This embracing your life each day because the Lord makes it available to you. It’s your reality. You can improve it, but there’s no use pining for someone else’s reality. God gave you your life as your path to heaven.