Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hope: Ruminations of a Reforming Optimist

I'm an optimist.  Always have been and always will be.  But I haven't always been a wise one.

When I was 19 I spent a couple of months in China on a missions team.  Being the natural optimist that I am, I blissfully ignored the state of many things that I had to cope with---including toilets that I had to use.  A squatty-potty in a busy hostel that doesn't flush properly so I have to be careful just how low I squat with other stuff already in there?  No problem!  Sharing a slit in a wooden floor as a toilet in an inhabited pig sty on a bus stop out in the middle of nowhere?  Easy peasie!  That's what I thought at the time.  But the big reoccurring stressful dream of my life to this day is of being desperate but unable to find a toilet that is clean enough to even approach.  Yuck, huh?

When I had my second baby, the first of three born in Fiji, I spent hours in labor only to have a C-section again in the early hours of the morning.  I was then put at the end of an ICU ward of about ten moaning women in the furthest bed away from the nurses' station. I couldn't move or attract the attention of a nurse all night because the bottom half of my body was still asleep from a spinal.  I had to lay flat on my back for the next 24 hours, but chose to focus on the fact that I was in the bed closest to the window in the sweltering, hottest month of the year so I had some breeze while others didn't.  Find the joy in the midst of (or just ignore!) the pain, right?  I came out of that experience with claustrophobia, especially if I feel like I can't move my legs, that I still deal with today.

This is pretty much a life-long pattern for me.  Focus on the good.  Ignore the bad.  Sounds good, right?  Possibly even admirable? "Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you who belong to Christ Jesus." (I Thes. 5:18)  

What this verse DOESN'T say and I, and possibly other optimists like myself, have missed for years is, "Just ignore the bad and pretend that it doesn't exist." There are many ways of avoidance in this life.  Ways to ignore or make ourselves numb to things that cause pain or that we just don't like.  I didn't know for years and years that autopilot cheerfulness could be one of them.

Ignoring pain while just trying to be cheerful and thankful is passive and harmful.  It's denial. It's avoidance at the core and comes back in negative ways to bite you. Like panic attacks.  Ask me how I know! Active thankfulness involves acknowledging pain in order to process it----but then intentionally choosing thankfulness anyway.  That's focusing on, "...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy" (Phil. 4:8) in the way that it was intended.  

So when I talk about hope (like I did in my last post), I'm not talking about innocent, Pollyanna, blind-to-reality hope; hope that doesn't confront pain.  I'm meaning hoping with your eyes wide open.  Eyes that see the pain that is there, but are hopeful anyway.  It's pulling your head out of the sand and embracing and having respect for reality.  That's the kind of hope that's worthy of admiration.  Otherwise it's a hope that's pretty hollow.

And I'm working to correct the things I've ignored and let build up enough to bite me from the past.  I'm determined to face them now, albeit a bit late, and not let them control me.  You can just imagine how well pain-avoidance patterns work for someone who lived in a red-light district in one of the poorest cities in the world.  Yeah, not so much.

Hope is real.  And it's always there.  But in order to dwell day by day in a hope that's strong enough, deep enough, and powerful enough to grip you like an "anchor for the soul" (Heb. 6:19) it needs to be based on reality, the good and the bad, as well.  And most of all based on Him, who is the Giver of Hope.

A practical way to develop real hope today by the camp director of my high school years:  

"Stop worrying.  Stop over thinking.  Stop playing out all those worthless scenarios.  God will take care of you.  Own that.  Take control of this minute right now.  What are you doing, or thinking, or saying that you need to change?  Are you seeking Him first?

Take control of that."  

Not great shots, but amazing fish from Kelly Tarlton's in Auckland this week: