July 15, 2011
The Challenge of
Optimism

Not Caving in to Your
Personal Capacity
For Despair
    
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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 holdings never plunged into the freefall that he feared. Yet the market’s 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 Jake died at 83, his widow found his portfolio to be worth over $700,000. Jake, unfortunately, had no orderly method for keeping track of his securities, and most of his numerous certificates were stuffed into 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 he was simply a pessimist--unable by nature to see the glass half-full. In fact, this Boston attorney would better be described as an optimist and a positive thinker in most ways. Yet he could cave in to discouragement under certain conditions, and he was particularly susceptible when it came to 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 certain factors.* Yet we’re seldom conscious of this tendency as a personality trait, nor do we recognize it as an unhealthy reaction when it occurs. The result is that we normally don’t think of it as something we can modify or control. Rather, we consider ourselves victims of the emotion when we experience despair.

Yet despair by its very nature is almost always an overreaction, often severely so. We assume that we’re doomed to fail in a situation where we may still have plenty of reason for hope. Even worse, we may conclude from one setback that we’re snake-bitten, and that the bottom is falling out in every other 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 have had an unusually hard experience of some type, or know others who have, we may have an inordinate fear of the worst recurring again in that area. We’re shell-shocked. It may take little to convince us that life is turning against us at that point.

Jake, who was born in 1912, was in his late teens and twenties when the Great Depression set in. For him, it broadsided what are usually a person’s most optimistic years. Seeing once-successful business executives selling apples on the streets of Boston indelibly impressed on Jake that financial catastrophe does occur, sometimes to the least expecting. Those years programmed him to fear the worst whenever stock market indicators turned negative.

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

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 in Scripture is the lame man who lay by the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-4). He had staked his hope for healing upon a popular belief--that when the pool rippled, an angel was present, and the first person who waded into the water then would be healed.

Yet this 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 he seemed to view his predicament as permanent; he had been ill for 38 years, and “had been lying there a long time.”

Jesus challenged that conviction, asking him, “Do you want to be healed?” By posing this question, Jesus implied that this man’s attitude was the main problem hindering his healing. Yet he also implied that the man could break the inertia of 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 perceive as hopeless. It challenges us to stop and consider whether our outlook is keeping us from seeing a solution. We’re reminded that God gives us greater control to remedy the problems in our life than we tend to think, and that he is on our side as we make the effort to see our life with the mind of Christ.

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 ever has a reason to feel discouraged. We experience losses at times so severe that grief is the most appropriate reaction--a healthy and necessary part of the process of coming to terms with our loss.

But too often our anguish, 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, it can continue on beyond a healthy period, and blind us to new beginnings God presents us.

Here are some steps that can help us break the spell of despair which has spun out of control.

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 likely fall short 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 it when you have to face them. Being clearly aware of what these circumstances are may also give 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 limited information; we know little about what is going on “behind the scenes,” or about how events will unfold in the future as a result of the situation that’s currently discouraging us. Over time, we often find that circumstances which we initially viewed pessimistically have benefited us in significant ways. With the advantage of hindsight, we now see them in a quite different light. Given that fact, we do well, as a matter of principle, to resist passing judgment on any situation until significant time has passed.

Take Inventory. It also helps us greatly to make the effort to think as clearly and broadly as we can--both about the situation that’s discouraging us, and about our life in general. Despair results because we focus too much on one matter--usually a setback or defeat--to the exclusion of everything else.

Jake would have benefited from having an accounting system that enabled 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 discouraging situation of our own--looking at as many aspects of it as we can--often helps us put it in a more hopeful perspective. We should also strive to think beyond the matter that’s distressing us, and to focus on other options we have and on God’s fuller picture for 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 our life’s 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, for instance, that a particular situation triggers our tendency to despair, should we try to stay clear of it altogether?

The answer depends upon God’s purpose for us in that 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 so often is concerned, not with changing “the situation,” but with changing us. God brings many challenges into our life in order to help us grow. He wants us to learn how to handle them effectively, and not to be easily unsettled by adversity (Jas 1:2-4).

Yet Scripture also has plenty to say about the need to be a good steward of our life, and to manage it in ways that help us be most productive for Christ. This may mean at times needing to make a responsible decision to leave a situation where we find it difficult to be productive. One of the factors we must weigh in such a choice is how the situation affects us emotionally.

Jesus, for instance, went so far as to exhort his disciples to leave towns where people didn’t receive them graciously, and to shake the dust off their feet as a testimony against them (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 clear intent was that his disciples stay productive. I suspect, too, that he didn’t want them to get bogged down emotionally in the inertia of unfruitful situations. He wished 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 someone’s shaking off the dust is Paul’s decision to switch his evangelistic focus from the Jews to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). Paul was deeply connected to the Jews emotionally, and highly susceptible to discouragement when his efforts to convert them failed. He went as far as to say, “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” (Rom 9:1-4). I suspect that part of God’s purpose in re-directing Paul 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 be more naturally 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’s emotionally taxing for us. The important question is how it contributes to God’s long-term purpose for us. We ought to base our major commitments, as much as possible, upon how well they fit our personality and gifts--including our natural ability to cope. By choosing a profession, a job, a church, relationships, hobbies and other major commitments that match our temperament, we’re simply being a good steward of the life that God has entrusted to us.

Jane, for example, is a highly skilled journalist, who 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 she 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 position 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 from 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 many 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 psyche. 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, so that, as a pastor, I can be better aware of AA’s resources. Although I was somewhat familiar with how the meetings proceed, and thought I knew what to expect, I was stunned by the display of humility among those present. 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 chronic problems that we have. Yet how seldom we do this. Most of us as Christians, for instance, have a chronic tendency to lose the perspective of faith on our life. Usually, though, we 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 Scripture terms “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 fully open to the unspeakable help and encouragement Christ wants to give us.
  

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