Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2021
At some point when I was a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, I learned about the difference between a person called an “optimist” and one called a “pessimist.” Whoever explained this to me—it was probably one of my older sisters—used my mother as an example of an optimist. I didn’t really understand what I was being told very well, but from that time on I looked at my mom a bit differently. I hoped I could be like her.
It may be that my entire theological project—emphasizing peace, arguing for restorative as opposed to retributive justice, understanding salvation in terms of God’s mercy—has followed from the sense that I wanted to be an optimist too. I don’t really have a theory for why some people are optimists and others are not. I probably was inclined to be optimistic about life even before I learned what the word meant, saw it exemplified by my mother, and decided I wanted to affirm that approach. Still, I’d like to believe it is at least partly something we can choose, and that it is more compatible with the gospel to choose to be optimistic about life than not to.
At some point, about the time I finished college, I began to believe strongly in the importance of seeking social change—to oppose war and injustice and to try to move things in a peaceable direction. This belief especially took the shape for me of working in Christian communities and of researching and writing what I came to call “peace theology.” I tend to think that such work probably needs to rest on an optimism about life—we can change things, we can live peaceably, at least somewhat.
Another way to think of being optimistic is to think of embracing our imperfect present as a context for experiencing meaning, at least a bit of healing, and movement in a positive direction. I’ve always tried to do that—to see beauty in the present, to embrace the joy of a moment of friendly connection, to hope that in some way things can get better. Sometimes seeking to be optimistic can mean ignoring a lot of obstacles to healing or avoiding conflicts or shying away from identifying too closely with people who are suffering. Yet, a generally optimistic approach to life actually can help one to face obstacles, conflicts, and suffering. A generally optimistic approach can help one to notice and appreciate various moments of joy, fleeting and partial as they may be.
Noticing moments of joy
Back at the time of the first United States war on Iraq in the early 1990s, I joined with various other Peace Church people to try to find ways to witness against the war. On the one hand, obviously the war went on, and US warism expanded and the promise of the end of the Cold War was crushed. But on the other hand, it was in many ways a joyful experience. Amidst this time of war, I found many friends who shared my commitment to peace. We organized and successfully carried out a public peace witness that provided some sense of hope and solidarity in face the Empire’s destructive actions.
I can also think of several difficult periods in my life—say, when I was in conflict with the regional leaders of my faith community and at the same time faced some difficult personal issues and at the same time had a dream of professional advancement broken. In the midst of those difficulties, I experienced some genuine and sustaining joy in my relationships with my friends. The distresses helped the moments of hope to stand out more.
Several years later I was involved in efforts to resist some hurtful injustices in the denomination that had ordained me. At one point, a small group of us at the church-owned college where I worked decided to organize our resistance. We called a semi-secret meeting and didn’t know who or how many might show up. I’ll never forget the surge of excitement each time a new, and often unexpected, comrade walked into the room. Shortly after that, a different small group of resisters met to plan an overt and seemingly risky act of resistance. We got some good work done on a weekend retreat and our action bore some significant fruit, but it was simply the pleasure of our intense fellowship that has stayed with me the most.
I’ve had other experiences, and been aware of many more from a distance, of work for change that often has not been particularly successful. I have the sense, though, that almost always there was some spark of life to be embraced and appreciated. We can call that spark the manifestation of wholeness in an imperfect present. Something to be embraced not in spite of the need for bigger healing but as part of what might sustain us in the on-going work to transform.
Treasuring the imperfect present
So, I wonder if we should recognize that if we are to solve the big problems, we must along the way treasure our imperfect present—to fan the momentary sparks of friendship, of good humor, of small-scale and partial healing, of solidarity with our fellow humans, even of fellow creatureliness with non-human life.
Maybe it’s true that if we think strictly of the need to win the big battles, to achieve the large-scale and needed transformations, to stop—say—white supremacy, the climate crisis, warism, predatory capitalism, mass incarceration, economic injustice, and so on, we may be overwhelmed. The Beast (that is, the Domination System) is extraordinarily resilient and competent. It can sap those who try to overthrow it of sustenance and hope. I can think of the massive anti-nuclear weapons movement of the 1980s that at one point seemed poised truly to overthrow the Leviathan. The Powers were crafty though, and before long the movement petered out and the bombs remained in place. The Beast was barely slowed down even in face all the intense efforts of so many people. It was a bitter failure that the nuclear weapons regime stayed in power.
Nonetheless, in the effort to make peace, some good things came. I wonder if it is only in appreciating those partial good things (including the moments of joy and solidarity) that hope and sustenance will be available. To embrace our imperfect present links with placing the priority on means over ends. This is how we might avoid the self-defeating temptation to become so absorbed with our big goals that we become overwhelmed and paralyzed when they are not achieved. And it may be how we might avoid the self-defeating temptation to accept moral shortcuts and use means that are not consistent with the ends we seek.
To embrace our imperfect present empowers us to take whatever opportunities arise to create space to be human even in the midst of efforts to achieve so much more. Those little human spaces are steps toward the healing we all need. They are not nearly enough, but they are something. And we won’t achieve the big healing without them.