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Meeting the Optimism Challenge

  • Blaine Smith Author and founder of Nehemiah Ministries
  • Updated Feb 01, 2002
Meeting the Optimism Challenge
Not Caving in to Your Personal Capacity for Despair

When the stock market crashed in October 1987, Jake feared it meant the end of life as he knew it. He had pinned his financial hopes for retirement upon years of careful investing in securities.

Within a day chest pains landed him in the hospital. The diagnosis: a heart attack. His body had caved in to the bad news along with his emotions.

Jake did recover, and after a long hospital stay returned home and lived another eight years. The stock market gradually recovered as well, and Jake's stock holdings never plunged into the free fall he feared. Yet market ups and downs constantly unsettled him. He worried often that he hadn't set aside enough for retirement, and that a market downturn would spell financial ruin for him and his wife.
Ironically, after he died at 83, his widow found that the value of Jake's investment in securities totaled over $700,000. Jake, unfortunately, had no orderly method for keeping track of their worth, and most of his countless stock certificates were stuffed in the drawer of a safe deposit box. As a result, he was left to ruminate about their actual value, and he often imagined the worst. In fact, he had more than enough to live comfortably, and about half of his holdings were in bonds, which don't lose their value during stock market declines.

A friend of his confided in me, "I just don't believe Jake had any idea how much he really had."

From this one picture of Jake, you might conclude that he was simply a pessimist--unable by nature to see the glass half full in his financial world. In fact, this Boston attorney would better be described as an optimist and a positive thinker in most areas of his life. Yet he could give in to discouragement under certain conditions, and was particularly vulnerable in the area of his finances.

Facing Our Own Potential for Despair

Jake's experience shows how even a basically optimistic person may fall into highly pessimistic thinking, given certain circumstances. It prods us each to look carefully at how we may be personally vulnerable to such a slide into despair, and what we can do to prevent it.

Each of us has what psychologist Robert Bramson terms a potential for despair, which can be set in motion by various factors. Yet, we seldom recognize this tendency as a personality trait, let alone as an unhealthy reaction. The result is that we normally don't think of it as something we can modify or control. Rather, we consider ourselves victims to the experience of despair when it occurs.
Yet despair by its very nature is almost always an overreaction, often severely so. We assume that we're doomed to failure in a situation where we may still have plenty of reason for hope. Even worse, we may conclude from this one setback that we're snake-bitten, and the bottom is falling out of every area of our life.

The potential for despair that we each experience is also a uniquely personal one. What triggers despair varies greatly from person to person, and often has to do with our past experience. If we've been seriously slammed by life in some area, or know others who have been, we may have an inordinate fear of the worst recurring at this point. We're shell-shocked by the experience. It may take little to convince us that life is turning against us in this area.

Jake, who was born in 1912, was in his late teens and twenties when the Great Depression set in. It broadsided for him what are usually a person's most optimistic years. Seeing once-successful business executives selling apples on the streets of Boston left an indelible impression on Jake that financial catastrophe does occur, sometimes to the least expecting. Those years programmed him to fear the worst whenever stock market indications were negative.

In the same way, if we've suffered a major tragedy or setback in some area--be it with a relationship, our health, or our effort to reach some cherished personal goal--we may be predisposed to expect defeat at this point. Even when our chances of succeeding are good, we perceive small setbacks as major ones, a single failure as indicating that the doors are forever bolted shut against us in this area.

The Inertia Factor

The most unfortunate part of despair is that it's an emotion with inertia. Left unchecked, it takes on a life of its own. A case in point is the lame man in John 5, who lay by the pool of Bethesda. He staked his hope for healing upon a popular belief--that when the pool rippled, an angel was present, and the first person into the water would be healed.

Yet the man also regarded his situation as hopeless. "I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me," he explained to Jesus. What's most stunning is that this man seemed to regard his dilemma as permanent; he had been ill for 38 years, and "had been lying there a long time."

Jesus challenged the man's conviction that his situation was hopeless, asking him, "Do you want to be healed?" By posing this question, Jesus implied that the man's attitude, as much as anything, was working against his healing. Yet he also implied that the man could break the inertia of his despair, and take steps to improve his life.

The incident is a good one to keep in mind when we're facing a situation that we think is hopeless. It challenges us to stop and consider whether our outlook itself is keeping us from seeing a solution. We're reminded that God gives us greater control to remedy the predicaments in our life than we tend to think. And Christ is on our side as we make the effort to see things more optimistically.

Winning the Fight

There is fortunately much that we can do to stop our tumble into despair when it occurs, and to prevent it from setting in, in the first place.

I'm not blandly suggesting that the Christian never experiences defeat, nor has a basis for feeling discouraged. We experience losses at times which are so severe that grief is the most appropriate reaction, and is also healthy--part of the necessary process of coming to terms with our loss.

But too often despair, as in Jake's case, is an extreme reaction, triggered more by the fear of calamity than the actual experience of it. And even when grief is appropriate, in response to a genuine loss, it can continue beyond a healthy period, and blind us to new beginnings and reasons for hope which God provides us.

Here are some steps that can help us break the spell of unhealthy despair.

  • Know yourself. Understanding our own psychology, and what makes us vulnerable to despair, helps enormously in learning how to avoid it.

    Learn to identify the emotion of despair as soon as it starts to set in, and to recognize that you are giving in to a deceptive emotion. Remember how your predictions of doom have usually been exaggerated in the past--probably dramatically so--and recall specific instances when this has been true. Realize that your present ruminations are likely askew of reality as well, and take comfort in that. If you possibly can, laugh at your tendency to catastrophize, which is only too human.

    Think over your life, and recall instances when you have given in to despair. Identify the circumstances in which you're vulnerable. If you know that certain situations tend to trigger despair, you can be braced for that possibility when you have to face them. Being clearly aware of what these circumstances are also gives you the freedom to decide to avoid them.
  • Withhold judgment. Steve Simms, author of Mindrobics: How to Be Happy the Rest of Your Life,* offers this advice for those times when situations fail to meet our expectations: Withhold judgment. Take a deep breath. While he makes an exception for obvious tragedies (the death of a loved one, for instance), he insists that in most cases we're on good ground not to make immediate negative judgments about situations that disappoint us.

    Simm's advice is good wisdom. Most of our negative judgments are based on very little information; we simply don't know much about what else is going on behind the scenes, or about how events will unfold in the future as a result of this situation. Over time, we so often find that situations we've initially viewed pessimistically have benefited us in significant ways. With the advantage of hindsight, we may see them in a very different light. Given that fact, we do well, as a matter of principle, to resist the inclination to pass negative judgment on a situation--forever, or at least until significant time has passed.

  • Take inventory. It is also very helpful simply to think as clearly and broadly as we can, both about the situation that's depressing us, and about our life in general. Despair results because we focus too much on one area--usually a setback or defeat we've experienced--to the exclusion of everything else.

    Jake would have benefited from having an accounting system that allowed him to easily calculate his net worth; merely being able to take inventory of his holdings would have allowed him to see that his financial picture wasn't as bleak as he imagined. In the same way, taking inventory of a situation that we're distressed about--looking at as many aspects of it as we can--often helps us to put it in a more encouraging perspective. In addition, we benefit from prodding our thinking beyond this one point of discouragement, to focus on other options we have, and the fuller picture of what God is doing in our life.

    Most of us can use assistance in taking such inventory. Having a friend or counselor who thinks positively about us, and is gifted in helping us see the bigger picture, helps immensely. We derive great benefit, too, from times of prayerful reflection, where we allow the Lord an unhindered opportunity to influence our thinking.

  • Shake off the dust. But what about the more fundamental question of whether we should simply avoid certain circumstances? If we know that a situation triggers our capacity for despair, should we try to stay clear of it altogether?

    The answer depends upon God's purpose for us in the situation. Is it likely to help or hinder us in realizing our potential for Christ?
    It is, of course, a prevailing theme of Scripture that God is often concerned not with changing the situation, but with changing us. God brings many difficult situations into our life in order to help us grow. His concern is that we learn to handle challenges effectively and not be easily unsettled by adversity (Jas 1:2-4).

    Yet Scripture also has plenty to say about the importance of being good stewards of our life, and of ordering it in ways that help us to be most productive for Christ. This means at times making responsible decisions to leave situations in which we find it difficult to be productive. One of the factors we must weigh in such choices is how we relate to a situation emotionally.

    Jesus, for instance, went so far as to exhort his disciples to leave towns where they were not graciously received, and to shake the dust off their feet as a testimony against these people (Mt 10:14, Mk 6:11, Lk 9:5, 10:11; see Acts 13:51). We might have expected him to encourage his disciples to be long-suffering in such situations--to learn to bear joyfully with those who didn't treat them well, and to wait patiently for them to change. Yet his intent was clearly that his disciples stay productive. I suspect, too, that he was concerned that they not get bogged down emotionally in the inertia of unfruitful situations. He wanted them to stay as optimistic as possible about being successful in their witnessing, for in that spirit they would most effectively minister to others.

    The New Testament's most dramatic example of shaking off the dust is Paul's decision to switch his evangelistic focus from the Jews to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). Paul was extraordinarily attached to the Jews emotionally, and highly susceptible to discouragement when his efforts to convert them failed. He went so far as to write, "I speak the truth in Christ . . . I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel" (Romans 9:1-4). I suspect that part of God's purpose in leading Paul to go to the Gentiles was to allow him to work in a climate where he could more easily stay optimistic. While he would still face many challenges with the Gentiles, he would more naturally be resilient with them emotionally.

    From Paul's example, and others like it in Scripture, we can take heart that it's sometimes okay to leave or avoid a situation that is emotionally taxing for us. The important question is how the situation contributes to our realizing our potential in the long run. We ought to base our major commitments, as much as possible, upon how well a situation fits our personality and gifts--including our natural ability to cope. By choosing a profession, a job, a church, relationships, hobbies and other major situations that match our temperament, we're simply being good stewards of the life that God has entrusted to us. Yet within each of these areas we'll need to adjust to many emotionally challenging circumstances, in order to reap the long-term benefits the situation offers us.

    Jane, for example, is a highly skilled journalist, and loves writing more than any other field of work. Yet she takes even moderate editorial criticism hard, and rejection of an article or manuscript crushes her. Jane shouldn't avoid the profession of journalism because she is prone to these reactions but should strive to modify them. Here, the assistance of a qualified counselor or support group can be invaluable in helping her learn to take editorial critiques less personally.

    At the same time, Jane should feel free to leave an unaffirming job for a more affirming one. Choosing a job in which people are supportive of her and her work, or leaving one in which they are not, is simply exercising good stewardship.

  • Limit contact with negative people. One point is abundantly clear for all of us: we should feel great freedom to limit our contact with highly negative people. Yes, Christ calls us to love and minister to those who are difficult to love, unquestionably. Yet he never expects us to be a doormat to anyone. If someone purposely is constantly insensitive or abusive to us, we shouldn't feel obliged to maintain any friendship with that person at all.

    Many difficult people, to be sure, are not intentionally unkind, and may even have their compassionate side. Still, their view of life is dour. We may feel that Christian love demands we spend time with them, for the sake of the influence we can have on them. Yet we need to be honest about their influence upon us as well. If we find that we're easily dragged into their pit of despair, we shouldn't place unrealistic burdens on our psychology. We may do best to limit our time with them to small doses, and to balance it with time spent with people who are positive about life--and about us.

  • Strengthen your trust in Christ. Recently a friend invited me to visit an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting she regularly attends. It was my first opportunity to witness in person this program that I've long admired from a distance.

    Although I was familiar with the proceedings at AA and thought I knew what to expect, the level of humility among these people stunned me. Person after person spoke candidly about how they were powerless to remedy their problems apart from God's help.

    The experience impressed on me how beneficial it is to face those areas in our life where we have problems that are chronic. Yet how seldom we do this. As Christians we have a chronic tendency to lose the perspective of faith on our life. Yet we usually fail to recognize just how recurrent the problem actually is.

    Simply facing the fact that we have a constant need for our faith to be rekindled is the single most important step we can take toward keeping our hearts encouraged in Christ. Nothing fights our slide into despair more effectively than appreciating how fully Christ can be trusted--both with our present and our future. Yet we need to remind ourselves constantly that this is true, for faith that seems so vibrant to us one day so often eludes us the next.

    The good news is that, as we make the effort to refocus our attention on Christ, he always responds with what John calls "grace upon grace" (Jn 1:16 RSV)--which in the Greek means an endless supply of grace for our needs.

    While our capacity for despair is considerable, our capacity for faith is even greater. Let us take heart from knowing this. And let us determine to make it our lifestyle to nurture this capacity, that we may stay as fully open as possible to the help and encouragement Christ wants to give us.

    Copyright 2001 M. Blaine Smith

    Blaine Smith is the director of Nehemiah Ministries and author of Knowing God's Will, which is available through CBD. (click on the book)