Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Stepping onto the platform to speak in June of 1983 in West Germany at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy, the famed Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl seemed to split the difference when he coined a powerful phrase that remains in use today.
“Let us first ask ourselves what should be understood by a ‘tragic optimism,’” he began.
What did he mean by such a term?
“In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” he explained. “A triad which consists of (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death.”
In short, Viktor Frankl was suggesting that it’s both possible and preferable to hope, pray, and work for the best – and yet expect or not be surprised by the worst.
Christians should have an especially strong fix on this dichotomy. That’s because our faith in Jesus Christ and the hope and promise of eternal life provides us with a firm foundation and the promise of the glory to come. At the same time, a fallen world leaves us keenly aware that struggle and suffering are to be expected. It is inescapable.
“I don’t expect men to live decently and in order, I expect nothing but what I am seeing,” observed the late British pastor Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
He then added:
“Man is the slave of sin and of Satan, therefore he lives according to that whole position, and I am not surprised. I am not surprised at world wars, I am not surprised at atomic and hydrogen bombs, I am not surprised at adultery and lust, I am not surprised at theft and robbery, I am not surprised at juvenile delinquency and all the present moral muddle. I am not surprised, I expect it, I anticipate it, and if the world should turn against Christians and massacre us, I shall not be surprised. There is nothing too bad for man in sin.”
And yet, this anticipation and expectation doesn’t give us license to throw up our hands in either exasperation or indifference. As Christians, we have an obligation to engage our culture, confront policies and even sometimes the people who peddle the lies – and serve those who suffer.
Longtime readers of the “Citizen” arm of the ministry will remember the name of the late Tom Minnery, who served as the then magazine’s first editor. Tom was a seasoned political reporter when he first came to Focus on the Family. In the years since his arrival, Tom became burdened by a growing contingent of Christians who felt it was either beneath them or even unbiblical to roll up their sleeves and engage politically. Some of these individuals felt that advocating for certain policies threatened to somehow compromise their witness.
To put it candidly, Tom was frustrated by this interpretation and never believed it was an “either-or” approach but instead a “both and” obligation. His book, Why You Can’t Stay Silent, made a strong case for the latter – and he peppered the project with plenty of example of Christians who helped change the world for the better.
William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and William Wilberforce, the British politician who helped abolish his nation’s slave trade, would be another. Both Booth and Wilberforce would have clearly been in the “tragic optimism” camp.
At the core of Viktor Frankl’s legendary work was his belief that it’s man’s search for meaning that drives and sustains him. In these increasingly uneven days that seem to grow darker, it’s the Christian’s belief and hope in Jesus Christ that transcends our circumstances and propels us to share the meaning to be found in this life and the life to come.