I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist, but I often focus on and assume the worst possible outcomes in life, because I think that keeps me aware and safe.
Of course, it doesn’t keep me either safe or particularly aware, but I do it anyway.
Perhaps that actually makes me a pessimist. I hope not. Who wants to be that guy?
In his 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “Crediting Poetry,” Seamus Heaney ponders the tension of the artist who finds himself lost in the negotiation between the devastating circumstances and the joyful realities of the world. Oftentimes, we assume the worst of humanity and focus on the worst of humanity in our writing, not only as a form of anxious self-protection, but because the worst often bears with it significance that, in Heaney’s terminology, “confers a worth upon the effort which it calls for to confront it.”
He writes, “It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir…. As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note…. Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture. Blowing up sparks for meagre heat…. Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place, but in despite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvelous as well as the murderous.”
Heaney refers to this shift from meditating on the darkness and sadness of the world with little hope for his role in its mending to a desire to represent the hopeful events that are also true as his “changed orientation.” Something akin to a changed orientation has also been happening in me.
I witnessed the fledgling bits of this in me last week.
My boyfriend is the assistant director of a nonprofit agency in Chicago. Simply put, their emphasis is on helping single mothers, often neglected and abandoned, and their children, who have often been equally badly treated, recover not only from the devastating legacy of physical poverty but from the even more devastating legacy of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual poverty. They provide shelter, food, education, and counseling, among many other things.
Volunteering there for extended times over the past few months has sorely tested my natural tendency to believe the worst. Because in spite of the bad things that have happened to the women who live there and in spite of the bad things that continue to happen, really good things, genuinely miraculous things, are also happening there every day.
And it’s hard for that kind of good not to prove infectiously hopeful.
Just last week at his agency, I was fortunate enough to witness the adoption of a beautiful infant girl by parents who have been longing for a child for years. I got to see the powerful love of the birth mother mingle with the powerful love of the adoptive parents and with the love of those who had nurtured this beautiful girl while all the decisions about her fate were being made.
It’s a long story, and it’s not my story to tell, but up until the morning of the official adoption in court, it was all touch and go. And I found myself the night before barely able to sleep with anxiety, imagining all the worst possible outcomes as if premeditation might blunt the sharper edges of disaster.
I told myself to pray, and here’s where the crux of my point comes in. I told myself to pray. And so I did. I prayed that this baby would be adopted by the prospective parents who could love her deeply and tend her well, but even as the words of the prayer escaped me, I was stricken with an urgent reluctance to surrender this to God or to anyone, because history, as Heaney points out, has taught me that the happiest outcomes are not always the ones we get, whether we pray for them or not.
I could even see myself clinging desperately to my own vigilant anxieties as if they could buoy me or conversely, as if remaining anxious and vigilant would somehow communicate to God, as if he was unaware, my utter seriousness and desperation for the need for a happy ending in this case.
I could almost see myself physically holding the tension, grasping after it, squeezing it in my hands, clutching it to my chest. I could almost envisage my anxiety as a pulsating cloud, a more powerful force for good or for a solid outcome than God.
My boyfriend, who is about as gracious and empathetic a human as you will ever meet, made a simple but profound point when I confessed my panicked visions to him.
“Maybe we have to make space in prayer for the belief that good things happen too,” he said, kindly, kissing my forehead and putting his arm around my shoulder.
Maybe we do. Maybe we have to surrender to that which is infinitely higher, better, and wiser than us.
Maybe we will do it kicking and screaming.
But I wonder what it would be like to surrender to love like that, to trust it fully and finally, to find the energy in swimming with that stronger current rather than always against it, to be always looking back, second-guessing, doubtful and unsure—to dive into rivers of mercy confident of being carried, thriving as they split the land ahead, overflowing their banks, making fertile space for all the marvelous yet to be reckoned.