Beyond Optimism and Pessimism

Beyond Optimism and Pessimism

Getty/Jorm Sangsorn

What’s up with being in the world but not of it? And why do bad things happen to good people?

I am so crushed by the weight of personal illness, the death of my sister from COVID, the war in Ukraine, racism and religious bigotry at home, and environmental collapse everywhere, I can hardly get myself up in the morning. I want to be an optimist, but I am becoming a pessimist. How can I hold on to being an optimist?

Rather than worrying about being optimistic or pessimistic, focus on being activistic: doing what you can to alleviate suffering and promote justice in the world. If you are optimistic, you may assume your efforts will impact the world for the good. If you are pessimistic, you may doubt your efforts will have any impact at all. But neither position matters.

What matters is what you do, not what you think about what you do. Make it a priority each day to do one thing that will make the world a little better for you being in it. As the first-century sage Rabbi Tarfon taught, “While it is not up to you to complete the task of perfecting the world, neither are you free to abandon it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). Get up, don’t give up.

As a devout person of faith, I pride myself on being in the world but not of the world. My daughter says this is escapist and selfish. Could she be correct?

Not only could she be correct, she is correct. With all due respect, I find the notion that you are in the world but not of the world to be false, offensive, and intrinsically dangerous in that it excuses you from working on behalf of the wellbeing of person and planet. I prefer the teaching of the eighth-century Hindu sage Shankara, who taught: “The world is maya (illusory). Only Brahman (God) is real. Brahman is the world.”

Brahman is the infinite nondual reality of which all life is a part. The world is in God and of God. And so are you. Until you realize this, you will be trapped in an illusory dualism that feeds the conceit that you have no responsibility for the world. To be in the world and of it in a manner that reveals the divinity of the world is the true path of devotion.

I have become painfully aware of the wickedness I have done in my life. How might I purify myself of my misdeeds so that I might die at peace?

To paraphrase a Hasidic proverb: “Whether you stir garbage clockwise or counterclockwise it is still garbage. Better to stop stirring and spend your energy stringing pearls of goodness.” You did what you did, and you should do what you can to make amends.

But most of your energy should be on promoting a future that will outlive you: a future rooted in courage, creativity, compassion, and concern for all beings. Rather than focusing on dying at peace, focus on living in service to others instead.

I believe in a punishing God, and constantly chastise family and friends who believe and behave in ways that will surely invoke His wrath. They call me judgmental. Is being judgmental something I ought to resist?

Not at all. In fact, you should be as judgmental as possible. To do this well and with integrity start with yourself: Whenever you find yourself thinking, feeling, saying, reading, or doing something that will incur God’s wrath, reprimand yourself sharply. Make lists of your errors and shortcomings and devote every waking hour to personal perfection.

When you have achieved this perfection, move on to helping friends and family do the same. If at some point you are exhausted by your efforts and find yourself surrendered to life’s imperfection and awake to grace rather than wrath, share that with your friends and family as well.

Only one question troubles me: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Bad things happen to good people for the same reason good things happen to good people: Things happen. This is what life is: Good and bad things happening. There is no one in charge of what happens and no escape from what happens.

The challenge isn’t to explain why things happen (fate, destiny, karma, divine reward or punishment, etc.), but to live open to what happens next. When bad things happen, grieve. When good things happen, rejoice. But don’t imagine you deserve one or the other; just stay vulnerable to both.

The more I come to understand the universe, the more I doubt the universe cares about people. I think this is what drives people to religion: They want to believe that the universe—that God—cares about them. I care about people, but does God?

Before I can answer the question “Does God care?” I must answer the question “Does God exist?” My experience—and I prefer to speak of experience rather than belief because the former is what I know and the latter is what I affirm without knowledge—is that God is the vast dynamic evolutionary energy unfolding as all reality seen and unseen. So, God exists because God is existence.

Now to the question “Does God care?” Since God is existence and you and I are part of existence and hence part of God, God cares to the extent that you and I care. God’s care expands as our care expands and God’s care contracts as our care contracts. I suggest you reword you question: Don’t ask “Does God care about us?” Rather ask, “How am I caring about us?” Regardless of how you answer the first question, it is your answer to the second question that matters most.

A friend of mine always quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It seems to me that there is no moral arc, and history is a repetitive circle. What do you think?

Morality is a human creation, and the moral arc, if such there be, is found in human history, not in the amoral processes of the universe. I see history as a spiral: both circular and linear. We do revisit the same principles (good and evil, justice and injustice, etc.) and the same problems (tribalism, fascism, etc.) but we do so in either higher or lower dimensions of consciousness.

The spiral is healthy if it moves upward and outward, expanding our conscious connection with all life and enlarging our concern for justice and compassion on behalf of all the living. The spiral is unhealthy if it moves downward and inward, contracting our conscious connection with all life and narrowing our concern for justice and compassion to those closest to us. A healthy spiral awakens us to boundless love; an unhealthy spiral fills us with boundless fear.

Curious about the medical benefits of a sunny outlook? Explore the six ways optimism positively impacts your health.

Rabbi Rami Optimism

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.