Hope without Optimism
I am proud to be involved with Centre 33. Centre 33 is an amazing organization that supports young carers in this city, and throughout Cambridgeshire. There are hundreds of young carers in our local community: children and young people who provide care, assistance or support to another family member who is disabled, physically or mentally ill, or has a substance misuse problem. They carry out significant, often substantial caring tasks. They take on a level or responsibility that is inappropriate to their age or development.
This is personal. Because I was a young carer, looking after my mother in our council flat on the 7th floor of a 19-storey block. She was very ill throughout almost all of my childhood. She died of cancer aged 47. It was just the two of us, save for the help of my elderly grandmother who lived a few miles away.
I had to grow up fast: young carers do. They develop extraordinary skills at an early age: they have to. Their childhood is compromised: there is no choice.
Centre 33 does an outstanding job in supporting young carers, and I love meeting them, sharing my story, and learning from them. Last week I recorded a podcast for Centre 33 when I was interviewed by two young carers; and I told them about what I'd been writing in last week's eMag about half-glass-full-ness. We got talking about the difference between hope and optimism. It's more than just semantics - as Terry Eagleton points out in his recent work Hope without Optimism (Yale 2019).
Optimism is about wanting the best thing to happen, the optimum. Optimum is Latin for 'best', and pure optimism is not just a random hopefulness, but a school of philosophy that makes serious claims for God's will in creation - famously argued by Leibniz as giving us 'the best of all possible worlds', and equally famously rejected by Voltaire in Candide (with some very jolly music provided by Bernstein in his operetta of the same name).
Hope is different to optimism. It's more nuanced. It isn't about desire, or just what we want. It has space for tragedy. And Christian hope doesn't leave out the bad bits. As the great 20th century theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it ‘From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is hope’. Here’s some more Moltmann: 'Faith hopes in order to know what it believes . . . the hope which arises from faith in God’s promise will become the ferment in our thinking, its mainspring, the source of its restlessness and torment.’
The young carers that I met are not blindly optimistic - they're too smart for that. But they are full of hope. And St Paul teaches us that mixing hope with faith and love provides something that lasts forever.