Advent Reflection: Hope, not optimism

Pollyanna and friends
Image by linniekin via Flickr

Pollyanna gets a bit of stick these days. The name of the main character from Eleanor H Porter’s work of classical children’s fiction has become an epithet for anyone deemed to be unrealistically optimistic. In the novel made even more well known by Walt Disney’s cinema version in 1960, Pollyanna invents “the glad game.” No matter how bad the circumstances, there’s always something to be glad of. Pollyanna receives, as a gift, a pair of crutches instead of the anticipated doll – well, she’s glad she doesn’t need them. Her stern aunt punishes Pollyanna for being late to dinner by banishing her to bread and milk in the kitchen with the maid, and Pollyanna thanks her profusely because she loves bread and milk and can think of no better pastime than chatting with the maid.

I was ten years old when I saw Disney’s movie, and Pollyanna, I think, ingrained in me one of those life commandments – “look for the good in all things” – probably not a bad corrective to my default melancholy disposition.

It strikes me that the season of Advent seems to begin from a melancholic stance. The Isaiah passages emerge from the experience of a people exiled and abandoned, crying out for their loss of culture, connection and place. Their pain reflects the continuous experience of displaced peoples – whether it be the life-threatening journeys of the world’s refugees from hunger and violent conflict, the inheritance of generations of systemic neglect and abuse, or the intervention of sheer bad fortune on hitherto lucky lives. To suggest playing “the glad game” would be inadequate and insensitive. A person who is in dire distress cringes at light-hearted ‘cheer-me-ups’ from the village optimist. At least, allowing oneself to enter the fullness of despair is to engage the honest parlousness of the situation. Sometimes optimism is simply another word for denial.

Isaiah allows us to enter and meditate fully on the archetypal experience of feeling abandoned and adrift. However, he does not leave us there. His whole work is predicated on hope. Hope is different from optimism. It allows full expression and ventilation of that which is wrong; it scrabbles through the rubble to find something that is foundational upon which meaning can be built, and uses this as a means of planning and constructing a way forward.

This is a different process than the one used in Pollyanna’s “glad game.” It is radical surgery of the collective and individual soul. Yesterday my congregation presented the results of some fund raising to Fresh Start, a Perth based drug rehabilitation program pioneered by Dr George O’Neil. Thousands of clients from around the world have successfully found help and hope through the holistic approach of  a program of physical relief, residential accommodation, community support, and spiritual conversation.

I point to Fresh Start as a living sign of hope in our midst. And I am sure Pollyanna would approve!

Published by wonderingpilgrim

Not really retired but reshaped and reshaping. Now a pilgrim at large ready to engage with what each day brings.

2 thoughts on “Advent Reflection: Hope, not optimism

  1. As with so many of your posts, I love this. It’s strange: I’ve been learning in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy how we often grow up with negative premises – fir example “I will fail” and our whole being is focused towards collecting evidence towards that destructive premise. Simply by being a Pollyanna, and collecting contrary evidence -of the little successes in one’s life- one can redress the balance and become much happier relatively quickly. Long live Pollyanna, I say.


  2. Thanks Kate – there’s nothing more challenging to the nay-sayer than someone who brightly moves forward and tackles the formidable task, even if they’re unsuccessful – (because they will then re-define success anyway!) “Always look on the bright side of life” – Monty Python.


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