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Embracing Optimistic Realism: Finding Middle Ground Between Naive Optimism and Cynical Pessimism

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Have you ever met someone so optimistic that you considered them more naive than realistic? Because they believe everything to be hunky dory, they blind themselves to the red flags leading to bad decisions and painful consequences. 

We observe this when people enter into romantic relationships, falling in love at first sight—projecting their perfect Adam or Eve onto this new person they “are in love with.” They don’t even know this person, nor do they ask around about this person’s reputation—or they do but ignore the bad report. However, reality hits home three months later when they discover this person lies, steals, and cheats—habitually. They cannot break up soon enough. 

Similarly, in the business world, individuals may venture into partnerships or investments solely focused on the potential rewards, ignoring the potential pitfalls and ultimately losing a significant portion of their investment. They had envisioned striking it rich. They thought this was a once-in-your-life-time opportunity. But the potential rewards had blinded them to the realities of business, and six months later they found themselves taking out a second mortgage to pay off their business debt.

Alternatively have you ever met someone so pessimistic that you considered them more cynical than realistic? They believe everything is problematic and impossible. Everything is a red flag to them. They are Debbie Downers about most things. Their negativity drains those around them. They criticize every proposal at work and assert that it will not prove successful. In their family, they complain about the lack of good things coming to them and readily criticize those causing them problems. Their cynicism spills over into most everything, adversely affecting their well-being and dampening the morale of those around them. They seem to live with a desire to say, “I told you so.”

Is There a Middle Ground?

Is it possible to find a healthy middle ground between naive optimism and cynical pessimism? 

Yes, we can develop both a positive (optimistic) and practical (realistic) mindset in our thinking. We can dwell on the good while planning for the challenges. However, we must avoid the snare of foolish naivety that is overly optimistic and cynicism that is overly pessimistic. 

Does Scripture promote optimism that entails seeing and thinking about what is good? When faced with challenges, we can possess positivity, enthusiasm, idealism, hopefulness, and confidence. We read in Philippians 4:8 where Paul encouraged his readers, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

Does Scripture promote realism that requires accurately evaluating and planning for future endeavors, challenges, and trials? We can possess objectivity, soberness, practicality, calculations, and caution when faced with challenges. In Luke 14:28, Jesus said, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (ESV).

So can Paul’s optimism and Jesus’ realism coexist? Yes, they can blend in healthy ways. We plan for the challenges, but we do so positively and proactively. We accept the reality of setbacks but with the attitude that we can adapt and be resilient. And we approach life with faith in God, who promises to work all negative things together for a positive good.

Abraham Lincoln struggled with melancholy and depression. If anyone had a bent toward negativity, this man could be a poster child. However, he seems to have countered the darkness. He pursued courses of action, believing something good and noble would evolve. He navigated the challenges, criticisms, and defeats with a determination to adapt while not letting go of what was right and true. He was resilient. We also note his dependency on prayer and God during moments that seemed humanly impossible. He looked to God to help him when feeling helpless and hopeless.

How Do We Find This Middle Ground?

What about us? Is it possible to embrace optimistic realism? Is it possible to find middle ground between naive optimism and cynical pessimism? 

Yes, the middle ground looks like this:

1. Proactive Mindset when Evaluating and Planning

We see the challenges and conditions in front of us. We do not blind ourselves to the demands and difficulties that require thought and diligence. However, there is a positive belief that there is a way forward. As one evaluates and plans, there is a proactive mindset that says, “We will do our due diligence to make sure we understand the facts as best we can and then brainstorm until we discover the best way forward.” 

Of course, as in the case of someone dating the wrong person or investing in a foolish opportunity, a proactive mindset does not give in to naivety but evaluates what is real. One may make different plans altogether. Proactive does not mean one barges ahead optimistically off the cliff.

Meditate on these scriptures
  • Proverbs 27:12: “A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences” (NLT).
  • Proverbs 27:23-24: “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations?” (ESV).
  • Proverbs 21:5: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.”
  • Proverbs 24:27: “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house” (ESV). 

2. Adaptability and Resilience During Setbacks

A realist knows life throws curve balls and even beams us with a hardball from time to time. But we get back up, brush ourselves off, and stand in the batter’s box. We stay in the game. We may strike out but not for the lack of swinging or trying to adapt to the curveball. An optimistic realist knows there will be setbacks. However, this person learns from hindrances and obstacles, makes adjustments, and persists in the belief that he can win. He always bounces back. He is not naively optimistic in thinking he will hit a home run next time at bat and win the game to the cheers of the adoring crowd, but neither is he cynically pessimistic and says they will certainly lose, so he heads to the locker room.

Meditate on these scriptures
  • 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (ESV).
  • Romans 5:3-4: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (ESV).
  • James 1:2-4: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (ESV).

3. Belief That God Causes All Things to Work Together for Good

Romans 8:28 is one of the scriptures most cherished by those who follow Christ. Though the Roman Christians encountered devastating afflictions, Paul urged them to believe that God’s plan would unfold for good on the heels of the bad. Stumbling blocks would become stepping-stones. The naive optimist eventually loses faith that God should not allow their sufferings but prevent them; therefore, God is not all-loving and all-powerful. They leave the faith. On the other hand, cynical pessimists leaves the faith because they conclude there will be nothing more than unjust adversity and meaningless difficulties. God won’t orchestrate the circumstances, for goodness’ sake. But the optimistic realist marches forward proactively with resilience as they anticipate God working all things together for good. 

Meditate on these scriptures
  • Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
  • Proverbs 16:3: “Commit your works to the LORD and your plans will be established.”

Optimistic realism is about finding the positives amidst the negatives—seeing the positive when feeling the negative. One works at having a proactive mindset, adapting to setbacks, and trusting in God’s providence. No, this does not mean everything will always work out for us exactly the way we hoped and planned. But in the end, it comes down to whether or not you believe in the encouraging truth of Romans 8:28, or if you actually think you are the exception to the rule. Do you believe God will cause all things to work together for the good of His children—including you? If so, then there is always reason to remain optimistic even when the harsh realities of life hit you with a fastball.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Which side of the fence do you tend to fall on most often—optimistic and hopeful (perhaps to a fault), or pessimistic to the point of being cynical? If you are not sure, consider asking a family member or close friend. Why might this be your natural bent?
  2. What are some of the challenges to maintaining a positive mindset when evaluating and planning? Why do these challenges deter your positive mindset?
  3. What have been setbacks in your past that were more difficult to get back up and persevere through? Is there anything you wish now you had done differently after they had knocked you down? What?
  4. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Do you truly know and believe this? Why is being sure of this every day the key difference between those who respond to setbacks and obstacles in completely different ways?