The news of the past couple of weeks is enough to make anyone despair: more deaths in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the attacks on a Synagogue in London and on a Church in Delhi, the rape of a nun in Kolkata – the list is awful.
Yet despite the news, I remain optimistic. I live in Israel where conflict is ever-present, where matters that are important to me, like overcoming poverty and equality of educational opportunities, are relegated to lower priorities for policy-makers, and where there is a likelihood that my grandson, like my son and my husband before him, will have to do military service. Yet, I look around and marvel at the many blessings in my life and know that just as my grandparents would not have believed that I would have the privilege to be here, I do not have the ability to imagine the incredible achievements that are just around the corner.
I find it tremendously encouraging that I am not alone. I become even more positive about the future when I hear people of all backgrounds and in all sorts of situations expressing their confidence that things will get better. Perhaps there is a genetic factor, or elements of our upbringing that made us this way. Psychologists do identify certain individuals as being more naturally optimistic. However, in my experience, for the most-part, these optimists, like me, have a spiritual life which provides them with their belief in the future.
My optimism may not have sprung from my religious faith but my faith sustains it. Something that religions have in common is a vision for the future which provides adherents with hope, even when history and current realities seem to indicate that we have no basis on which to base it. Marx thought it was opium; I suggest it is a clearer awareness of reality. Hope springs from the fact that human life has purpose. We have purpose. These ideas are common to theistic and non-theistic traditions.
Optimists are activists and peace-makers, helping bring about the better future we know is there.
Christianity has been described as a religion of hope. Many Christians view God as Hope itself, as a liberating force, and humans who tune into this force are empowered to do good. St. Paul says in Rom 8, 24-25: “In hope, we already have salvation.” The Sikhs, also monotheists, say that by contemplating on God’s name the divine spark inside each of us is ignited. Buddhism’s hope is based on confidence in the fundamental goodness of the human being rather than on a conception of God. We have nothing to fear if we recognize that anything that appears not to be good is an illusion.
The religions of India include theistic and non-theistic varieties which all share the role of providing hope to millions. Even where the physical world denies a person dignity, the spiritual life can transform a person’s perception of their own circumstances. The Hindu Nobel Laureate, the poet Tagore, said that where the mind is without fear and the head held high, people can find their way to the ‘heaven of freedom.’ Dr Mustafa Ceric, the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia says that for Muslims, too, hope is the antidote to fear. After Srebrenica, he composed a prayer of Hope which says, “May grief become hope! May revenge become justice! May a mother’s tears become prayers! “
I have no doubt that the resilience of the Jewish people reflects their heritage of optimism. Judaism contains a messianic vision of a redeemed future. In the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), which we began reading this week, are the wonderful words of hope, “I will grant peace in your land and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid.” The verse goes on to say that God will remove the wild beasts and men will not make war. This suggests to me that a better future will be a partnership between humans and the divine.
It is certainly true that many things which might deprive people of their faith in the future are beyond our control – natural disasters, illnesses etc – but there are many ways that a person can respond to the world. The terrible news headlines do not reflect the activities of people of faith. They show what happens when people lose their faith and their hope. If we believe that there is purpose to our existence, we will respond with determination. And it is that common bond of purpose and optimism that binds many people of faith to each other, regardless of the religious tradition from which they come.
Peta Jones Pellach is a fifth generation Australian. She made Aliyah in 2010 and took up her position as Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia, India, Iceland Poland and Morocco to participate in and teach interreligious dialogue. She is also a teacher of Torah and Jewish History, a Scrabble fanatic and an Israeli folk-dancer.