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Optimism, hope and American life

| Thursday, March 22, 2018

A close friend recently commented that, to her surprise, I am optimistic. Perhaps too optimistic, especially in my thoughts on politics. Conservatives are pessimistic, right? I replied that it would be irrational to not be optimistic. That sounds exaggerated and naive. A dose of pessimism should ground expectations in reality. But general optimism, and the decision to allow that optimism to influence thoughts and actions with the hope that it will indeed influence them — well, I see no other way.

While optimism and hope are not exactly the same, they both support the value of a positive outlook. I am hopeful when starting something, and optimistic when seeing it through or beginning anew if I fall short. It is easy to be sucked into a negative view of events and of life — after all, the world is a much tougher place than the campus in South Bend we call home suggests. But without a positive view, without the drive for a better future, if not for yourself then for others you hold dear, there are few places to go and few things to do. It is hope which compels thoughts to become actions. A recent, New Years’ resolution-oriented Wall Street Journal essay concluded, “Our world needs more people willing to take the first step, so that others may follow.” To take the first step, you must be hopeful about the outcome and optimistic that you can do good, will succeed or will take the first step again at a later time if faced this time with failure.

These two ideas connect to the core of our nation. My great-grandparents, escaping genocide and famine to reach the shores of this country, pursued something unique. They were right to be optimistic — they were right about something being unique. What is it they were right about? The instinctive answer of many be freedom. I have a sense, though, that freedom isn’t exactly what makes our land unique. Yes, liberty, defined in terms of natural rights and natural limits, which is to say freedom with a purpose, is central to the American experiment. But there’s more.

America is unique because her people are hopeful. Indeed, this hope manifests itself in liberty — you would be hard-pressed to find better ways for hope to manifest itself. But hope is what captures hearts and minds. Looking back to the beginning, the Founders wrote, not in hope for liberty for themselves, or for America, but for the world. It’s in the Declaration of Independence: “submitted to a candid world.” They wrote in hope that liberty for the world might one day be realized.

Hope is the great gift with which we were bestowed. Former-President Barack Obama, then, had at least one thing correct. That hope, that hope for liberty, though, is not a governing philosophy and it must be exercised responsibly. It is the great challenge of each generation to square the hope for liberty with the realities of present. This is where I would outline the case for limited-government conservatism. I would say that, at the bottom line, in light of the persistent failures of an expansive state and such a state’s natural opposition to constitutional freedoms, we should limit the size and scope of the government. I would say that hope about our people causes me to be optimistic that we can live together and live well without significant regulation that is burdensome to small and new business owners. Without irresponsibly-managed federal programs that are becoming harmful to the very people they are meant to help. Some of both is necessary, but too much of both is detrimental. This is also where I say there are legitimate — although perhaps misguided — arguments for sustaining increased federal involvement in the economy, the issues of civil society and more. And we will disagree about policy measures. But the significant fact remains that we share in the conviction that liberty must be preserved along with the values of justice, equality and more, which stem from liberty because we share that unique hope.

This article may, like my response to my friend’s comment on my optimism, seem naive. It is easy to write about all the great benefits of hope and about how optimism is woven into our national DNA. It is an altogether more difficult task to live it out. It could be the case that hope and optimism are impossible in an age where the media and many politicians exploit mistakes, failures and tragedies to paint a picture of an ending world — of why you should keep watching their shows and voting for them. But I had time to reflect on this concern over winter break. My own convictions were challenged with a few difficult situations which required me to consider more deeply the value of hope and optimism. Tough environments, hard decisions and true evil exist. To combat these marks of life that could easily fuel pessimism, it is important to hold on to hope and be inspired by optimism. To hold on to the hope which unites us and to the optimism that strengthens us. To hold on, because these ideas connect to our very freedom.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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