When I worked for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, I collaborated on educational programming with a psychologist who taught “realistic optimism.” He encouraged people to be practical about coping with their diagnosis, dealing with symptoms, and planning their futures. For example, “I know I will be cured” was an unrealistic expectation. But thinking “I know there are now many options for treatment; I will find the one that is best for me” is realistic as well as optimistic.
It seems to me that the Christian concept of hope is similar to this strategy. We are realistic about what can come into our lives: pain, suffering, loss, challenge, unwanted change, and heartache. And yet we also believe that God is in control and that we are safe in God’s hands. We proceed through our lives in the Kingdom of God with realistic optimism.
That is the intellectual and spiritual foundation for getting through our lives here on earth.But how do we put that foundation into practice? I think the Serenity Prayer has the answers we need. The most popular version of that prayer was written by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and has been universally adopted by Twelve Step Groups.
The first several lines are very familiar. We are taught to accept the things we cannot change, which is most everything in life – except ourselves. We are encouraged to change the things we can; this gives us a sense of action and mission – and possibility. Then, most crucially, we are encouraged to learn recognize what we can and what we cannot change. This then is how we grow hope: by being willing to pursue wisdom to know what we can and cannot change in our lives and acting accordingly
The second part of this prayer is not as well-known, but it, too, leads us to hope through realistic optimism:
“Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking as He did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next.”
Sometimes Christianity is promoted as the solution to all problems and a carefree path to happiness. Realistic people know that this is not true. We realize that such expectations fuel resentment. We understand that the journey to hope means living with God in the moment, recognizing that the world cannot always deliver what we wish for, but trusting that we will be “reasonably happy” in the Kingdom of God on earth and “supremely happy” in the Kingdom of God eternal.