A friend whose wife is undergoing treatment for a serious illness told me that their physician advised them to approach it with hope, not optimism. My friend found this guidance helpful, and it makes sense to me.

Optimism, as I understand it, is an attitude of expectation that a particular result will occur—that a person will recover from an illness, that we will achieve a specific goal, that the Publishers Clearing House will pick my number from among the billions submitted. The dictionary defines optimism as “an inclination to anticipate the best possible outcome.”

Hope is less specific. It’s an attitude that looks for possibility in whatever life deals us. Hope does not anticipate a particular outcome, but keeps before us the possibility that something useful will come from this.

We are told that an optimistic outlook is a good thing, but I’ve rarely found it so. Optimism often leads to disappointment. When the best possible outcome doesn’t occur, we are let down, may even feel betrayed. Optimism may then become its opposite—pessimism, an inclination to anticipate the worst possible outcome.

Hope is more resilient, more enduring, more helpful. In a serious illness, for example, there are often setbacks. In the face of these, optimism may wear down. But hope encourages us to move forward despite the setbacks.

As we pursue our goals in life, optimism may lead us to expectations that are unrealistic and ultimately hurtful. Hope advises us to look squarely at the realities that confront us while remaining aware of the possibilities.

Erich Fromm observed, “To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime. Those whose hope is weak settle for comfort or for violence, those whose hope is strong see and cherish signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”

It is helpful guidance, I think, whether we are faced with a serious illness, a personal dilemma, or a society that seems determined to destroy itself—not optimism that a particular result will occur, but hope to “see and cherish signs of new life” wherever these may occur.                                                       

                                                                        from Taking Pictures of God
                                                                                    by Bruce T. Marshall
                                                                                    Skinner House Books, Boston, 1996

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