By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Vestal N.Y. Reporter 

Optimism vs. pessimism


Self-help books encourage us to be optimists. If we don’t actually try new challenges, we’ll never know if it’s possible to accomplish something new or different.

The writers of these works assume that the results of our actions will be positive. Of course, there is another point of view, one that sees change and hope as dangerous. This idea can be found in a philosophy offered by a character in Shalom Auslander’s latest novel “Hope: A Tragedy.” Auslander makes a profound statement that intrigued me because it was the opposite of what one might expect: It’s better to be a pessimist than an optimist, because pessimists don’t start wars.

If you think about this, it makes a great deal of sense. No one starts a war thinking they, their family and/or entire nation was going to be destroyed. One always believes and hopes that their side will be victorious.

Yet, one of the funniest parts of Auslander’s book (and one that may offend many people) is when the main character’s psychiatrist uses a specific example to show why hope and optimism are so dangerous: He suggested Hitler’s actions prove him the ultimate optimist.

Why? Hitler believed that there could be a final solution to his “Jewish problem.”

But how, the psychiatrist asks, can there be a final solution to anything? Beneath the humor and shock effect of his comment is a kind of common sense. We will never be able to cure all the problems of the world and to believe otherwise is unrealistic. In addition, the consequences of our actions can create results far different from our hopes—from the war to end all wars (World War I) that led to greater destruction (World War II and the Holocaust)—to name only one of an endless list.

After writing these paragraphs, I stopped working on this column for more than a month because I’d worked myself into a corner. Usually I’m able to find an optimistic spin on even the most pessimistic material. Yet, it’s so difficult to counter Auslander’s claim (or, to be more accurate, the character in his novel, since we don’t know if the author agrees with his philosophy).

Traditional Jewish thought, though, does suggest a different approach. For example, in “Pirke Avot” (“The Sayings of Our Fathers”), Rabbi Tarfon notes that while we don’t have to complete the task (meaning performing tikun olam, repair of the world), we are not allowed to stop working for it.

In simpler terms, although there will never be a final solution to poverty or war, we still need to work to eradicate them. No, we can’t predict when we will do harm or good, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

I was then reminded of a conversation that took place last year. A friend and I were discussing an organization I support. She noted it was unable to completely resolve the problems its clients faced. She was looking for a complete solution for each person; if that wasn’t possible, then, for her, the group served no real purpose.

I countered that while permanently solving the clients’ problems would be wonderful, sometimes it’s necessary to be content with what I called “band-aid solutions”: You give the help needed now and worry about the future later. For example, it would have been wonderful if every woman who was abused moved on to a new life. Unfortunately, many of them return to their abusers. Yet, without a shelter to protect them at that moment, the result might have been disastrous. And, maybe, next time, they will gain the courage needed to leave the relationship permanently. But until that time comes, a safe space may be the best for which we can hope.

And there I used the word so hated by Auslander’s character: hope. Somehow, we have to find a balance between being overly optimistic and overly pessimistic. Where we draw that line will depend on specific situations and the individuals involved. How much simpler it would be if we could find one solution to all our problems. Yet, Jewish tradition demands we struggle with the issue, even if we find no permanent answer.


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