7 min read
Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?
What a year we've just lived through!
So many things went wrong. The economy went into crisis mode. Our retirement funds dwindled in value and jobs became scarcer. Mother Nature took it out on us with a vengeance, smiting us with hurricanes, earthquakes and unbearable temperatures. Rebellions and revolutions spread around the globe and the vision of universal peace realistically seemed further away than ever.
And with all that came a visible cultural change that we can't remember afflicting us any time in the past.
The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did."
Peggy Noonan captured it precisely in a perceptive article she wrote in the Wall Street Journal. She put it this way: “The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did … the country I was raised in was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought – wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances – that their children would have better lives than they did. That was what kept people pulling their boots on in the morning after the first weary pause: my kids will have it better… Parents now fear something has stopped … our view of the future is now fundamentally pessimistic.”
Till now the American spirit was defined by optimism. The American dream was built on the hope for a constantly improving future. Growth, prosperity and ever greater success were assumed almost as if they were part of our deserved birthright.
Every new year could be counted on to be better than the one before.
But that's no longer true.
As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?
Te answer I believe is that it isn't simply permissible to be an optimist, it's a mitzvah and it's mandatory!
Is God an Optimist?
Which of the two is the Creator of the universe—an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!
Psychologist Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that pessimism can be changed; people can alter their thinking about bad events and thereby improve their health.
Optimism can be cultivated.
Many health professionals have come to agree with him; optimism can be cultivated. Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, in his book The Origin of Everyday Moods, says that most people erroneously think of optimism and pessimism as fixed traits. But he and his colleagues find that these feelings even in one and the same person tend to come and go. They are like moods that usually are associated with specific moments.
Even when the world around us seems to be crashing and our lives filled with forebodings of disaster, there are ways to prevent ourselves from falling into depression and from assuming that God has forsaken us.
What all these insightful ideas share in common is that we owe it to ourselves to be optimistic no matter what goes on around us - and that the spiritual values of faith have the greatest potential to achieve that goal.
All this is another way of saying that when we rededicate ourselves to God on the High Holy Days we stand the greatest chance of ensuring that - in spite of everything - we will have a very happy new year.