Your Optimism Isn’t a Virtue

Image obtained through creative commons and used with permission, courtesy of Moyen Brenn

Growing up in an abusive home taught me a harsh lesson about optimism: too often, optimism is a weapon in the hands of people who are simply unwilling to help. Too often the apathetic bystander uses optimism as an excuse to walk away, guilt free. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Priest and Levite who walked past the wounded man in a ditch told themselves to hope for the best, that surely someone would come along and help him, or he’d rest awhile and find the strength to crawl to safety. Surely, he didn’t need their help. Perhaps they patted themselves on the back when a Samaritan came along and helped him. “You see?” they said to themselves. “I knew he’d be alright.”

Growing up in an abusive home, I was somehow lucky enough to recognize what was happening and know that it was wrong and that it wasn’t my fault. And as a teenager, preparing for college and terrified to leave my younger siblings behind, I somehow found the strength to approach adult after adult and seek help. But do you know what most of them told me? Most of them told me some variation of, “This trial will make you stronger,” or “The only thing you can control is your attitude, so have a positive attitude.” I heard answers along those lines from everyone you could imagine, from some of my leaders at church, to a family therapist.

Recently I realized something surprising: of all the people who actively tried to do something to help me, none of them are calling for Americans to unite and support Trump’s actions. None of them have told me that I need to hope for the best, and none have tried to claim optimism about Trump as a virtue. None. To the contrary, most have actively spoken out against his actions.

But the people who told me to bide my time while living in abuse and then leave when I had a chance? Or the people who knew for a fact that my father had a history of abuse but did nothing to help me? The people who told me it was my fault? From them, the responses to Trump are far from unanimous, but I’ve seen a lot of complacence, even in the face of this week’s assault on religious freedom.

The people who did nothing at the time but later apologized and told me they wished they’d done more? They’re fighting back against Trump’s actions too, even if their methods are subtle.

I’m not saying that everyone who is being complacent about Trump would enable domestic abuse (though remaining silent as he dismantles protections for abuse victims might very well suggest as much). What I am saying is that optimistic inaction in response to another person’s suffering is not a virtue. It is a cop out. It is a refusal to mourn with those that mourn or to care for the stranger in our midst. And it places the so-called optimist on the side of the abuser, who asks nothing more from us than inaction.

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