Not too far up the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, is the riverboat town of Hannibal. Every school child from far and wide has visited Hannibal because it’s where Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) grew up. I have fond memories of touring Tom Sawyer’s cabin and seeing the fence that he tricked all his friends into painting for him. We toured the Becky Thatcher riverboat and learned all about navigating the water, how the navigators would measure the depth of the water and shout out “Mark twain!” to alert the pilot that there were two fathoms of water under the hull.
Many of Twain’s stories are amusing tales relating back to his childhood experiences in that small town and his time on the river. Other stories he wrote are much darker in tone. Huckleberry Finn, in particular, is a work of great pathos that explores difficult themes. Huck Finn has abundant redeeming qualities, but some of Twain’s lesser-known short stories become far more bleak. For instance, “The Story of the Good Little Boy” is described by one reviewer as surpassing anything Tarantino has ever done.
For a long time, I wondered why Twain, a man of great humor and talent, became so hopeless. His own personal life was marked by a number of financial failures, which I’m sure didn’t make him jump for joy. There had to be something more, though– a deeper well from which his sadness arises.
Twain, the optimist
Eventually it occurred to me that Twain is the very definition of an optimist. He was always up to some hare-brained business scheme that didn’t quite work out. Meanwhile, his stories are full of yearning for ideal worlds. At their best, they identify the best in everyone. His life and work are marked by an inner dynamism that belongs to those types of people who always seek the bright side.
That’s the strength of an optimistic outlook. It always searches out the good. However, relentless optimism can create a lot of problems. In some situations, it becomes a weakness because when it encounters difficult situations, it is unable to face up to reality. Optimists are regularly disappointed by their high expectations. If that happens enough times, optimists like Twain can sink into despair.
To be fair, Twain recognized that optimism can be a flaw. He makes a number of quips about it, for instance, “There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist,” or “Optimist: day-dreamer in his small clothes [underwear].”
He never was quite able to adjust his expectations, though, and ended his life as a hopelessly disappointed man.
Does this mean we should all give up, stop being optimistic, and settle into the reality of a mediocre life?
Not at all.
There’s a big difference between optimism as a natural disposition and the virtue of hope.
Alice von Hildebrand writes in The Art of Living, “Optimism has nothing to do with hope.” She goes on to explain that optimism is a purely immanent tendency, by which she means that it’s focused on conditions in this world alone. Optimists expect their daily affairs to go smoothly – no traffic, a short line at the coffee-shop, no shiftless co-workers, sincere politicians, easy friendships, no family quarrels, a loyal employer, and so on. When this doesn’t happen, optimists lose hope because their focus is short-sighted and limited.
This means that, sometimes, optimism is unhealthy. It damages the virtue of hope. Particularly when circumstances call for realistic reactions and an understanding that bad things can and will happen to us during the course of our lives, relentless optimism can cause a sort of blindness. It keeps us from acknowledging the truth of a situation and making peace with it. In turn, this causes chronic unhappiness.
“Optimism is so much rooted in immanence,” writes Hildebrand, “that it is quite possible to imagine a person characterized by an innate optimism suddenly falling into the dark pit of despair the very moment that his supply of optimism is exhausted.”
Maybe you’ve had this experience. You’re trying so hard to be bright and cheerful in the face of an impossible situation that your energy runs out and you immediately give up. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, you’ve run out of fuel, and the engine grinds to a halt.
Mark Twain has always spoken to me as a fellow traveler, a person inclined to fall into melancholic despair . Underneath the idyllic Missouri hijinks of Tom Sawyer there was always a brokenhearted optimist.
The transcendence of hope
One of Twain’s final stories, “The Mysterious Stranger,” ends with a dialogue in which Satan tells the narrator, “There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell … you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!” The narrator accepts this poisonous information, saying. “I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.” When I read that story as a young man, those lines lingered with me for far too long, a description of pure hopelessness.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. If optimism is situated in immanence, explains Hildebrand, then hope is grounded in transcendence. Hope reaches out and grasps the next life in the midst of troubles in this life. It doesn’t give up on Heaven – it strives for it. Hope is strong, remaining steadfast even when life disappoints, even when expectations aren’t met. Hope is free of illusion. It acknowledges the reality of death and how we’re all flawed, how we hurt each other and fight and have a tendency to make messes. Hope sees all that and still perseveres because it also sees the good. It sees the lasting value of each person and how this imperfect world is being redeemed.
Hold on to your hope. No matter what life throws your way, hope is the assurance that your life has eternal meaning, and all things will be made right in the end. The cosmos is not emptiness but, rather, the final word belongs to love.