How do you find yourself responding to all the bad news we’ve been hearing lately?
If you are a voter who’s paying attention, you’ve heard story after story about how dysfunctional congress is. If you have a mutual fund that you’re counting on to provide income for your retirement, you experienced a significant drop in the value of your investment in the last few weeks. If you are a business owner, you’ve seen businesses close and or leave town recently, and you’re aware that you could be next.
So how do you cope? How do you respond to all this bad news?
Optimism alone doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. I no longer see bumper stickers that proclaim “It’s all good.” A recent headline citing a May Gallup Poll exemplified this: “In the US, optimism about future for youth reaches all-time low.”
Since we didn’t save for a rainy day, we’ve now decided to save during the storm, which is the opposite of what our economy currently needs. We know that, but we’re cutting back anyway because we’re afraid of another harsh weather front, one that is worse than the current one.
Pessimism, on the other hand, is not helpful. The belief that nothing good will happen can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One thing I’ve learned from my friends in AA is that, in a strange way, pessimism feeds our hunger for control. Negativity breeds negativity and makes us feel miserable, but in the end, when things turn out badly, we get to say, “I told you so.”
Hope is another way some of us are responding to the lack of control we feel. This story might illustrate what I mean.
When I arrived in Forest Park in 1982, I met a young, single woman, in her early 20s, named Bette. Bette was nine months pregnant when we met. The baby’s father had run away and left Bette alone to raise the child. On top of that, her mother was going through her third bout with cancer, and everyone knew that this round would be fatal.
I asked Bette how she was able to carry on despite all the hardships. She replied, “I’ve learned to hope.”
She then explained, “I don’t hope for anything. I don’t hope that the father of my child will return. I don’t hope that my mother won’t die.”
“I just hope,” she said.
Over the last 29 years I’ve thought about Bette’s statement a lot. What she was saying, I think, is that she had less control over her future than she initially thought. She realized that she had control over her own actions and took responsibility for doing what she could, but she had made a spiritual leap and accepted that much of what lay ahead was out of her control.
Bette understood that, frequently, you do reap what you sow, but she also accepted that bad things happen to good people. And she also accepted that good things happen to bad people.
If you are a leader with any kind of authority – a parent, teacher, pastor, business owner, or mayor – you have a responsibility to use what control you do have to contribute to the well being of the individuals and communities you serve.
Mayor Calderone and the commissioners, for example, have the responsibility to do what they can – with limited funding in an uncertain economy – to improve our sewer system. That’s the kind of thing we expect from officials who have some control over people and the forces that affect them.
Our leaders also need to project that very intangible thing called hope. Much like FDR’s promise of recovery during the Great Depression, or a loving parent’s comforting of a young child during a thunderstorm, our leaders need to communicate hope. They need to convince us that, somehow, some way, we’ll get through this; and, that we might even arrive at a place we hadn’t previously imagined.
We don’t need pandering optimism, nor is pessimism the answer. Give us hope. But be frank, and state that tough breaks are probable, just as good fortune is too.
This requires the belief that there are forces in the universe working for us, not just those that are trying to bring us down. Acknowledging this is not above anybody’s pay grade.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.