Friday, July 12, 2019

Hope and optimism these days

This is obvious to anyone who really stops to think about it, but hope and optimism are different things. They’re closely linked to each other, and sometimes they’re spoken of as near synonyms, but they’re still different. These days it’s more obvious than ever.

In basic definitions, hope is merely “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen,” while optimism is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.” Optimism is implicitly based on hope, but one can have hope without necessarily feeling optimistic that “a particular thing” will actually happen. The difference is that word confidence: Those with optimism think “a particular thing” probably will happen, while someone with hope but no optimism may not expect it to actually happen, even though they wish it will.

This trip though lexicography gives us a way of looking at how people can approach the same thing from very different reactions, even while desiring the same thing—like in politics, for example, and the future one may be facing.

In the United States, the difference between those with hope alone and those with optimism couldn’t be more stark or consequential. But it’s also more complicated than it may seem.

The supporters of the current regime controlling the White House are loudly optimistic about what their guy will do, regardless of the fact that the evidence contradicts that belief and, in fact, shows more betrayal than fulfilment of promises. To those fervent believers, no facts can possibly change their mind.

On the other side, there are those who are pessimistic about the future. They see the current occupant of the White House “joking” about remaining in office for “10 or 14 years” (as he did just today), and they hear him constantly attack the free press as “the enemy of the people” and “fake news” because it won’t be a sycophantic propaganda voice for him. They see him idolising brutal dictators. They see him defying the rule of law and the US Constitution. And, because of all that, there are those who have no optimism that the USA even can get out of the mess it’s in.

In between them are people who don’t support the current regime—and the majority of Americans don’t, of course—but who are nevertheless optimistic about a return to the norms of government and the rule of law. Such people are clear-eyed about all the bad stuff the current regime is doing, but they remain optimistic that the republic will overcome all that and move back toward normality.

What gets forgotten in talking about these divisions is that even the pessimists can remain thoroughly hopeful about the future, and, just like the optimists opposing the regime, they desire that the republic will overcome all the bad the current regime is doing. The difference is that the optimists have confidence that the USA will inevitably move back toward normality, while the pessimists are afraid that it can’t.

At this point, we have no way of knowing who will be proven right, however, the omens and portents clearly aren’t good, no matter how much people truly want them to be. All we know for certain is that there are two opposite possibilities: Things MAY get better, or it all MAY get very much worse. That means, then, that opponents of the current regime who are pessimistic may actually turn out to have been hopeless about the future and may be cynical, despairing, or despondent—or realistic. At the same time, the optimists who oppose the regime could be feeling not optimism, but delusion, self-deception, and/or fantasy. Or, they could be sensible.

Between now and the 2020 US elections, it’ll become clearer which future—return to normality or collapse—the USA is headed toward. Until then, there will be no shortage of opinions on which view is most “realistic” (a word too often used to dismiss those with opposing views).

In the meantime, sure, it’s obvious that hope and optimism are different things, and that people can look at the same situation and have very different reactions. Hope? Optimism? These days the difference is more obvious than ever.

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