According to historian John Keegan, in a particular battle during World War I, the British lost 70,000 troops and suffered an unthinkable number of wounded. With this loss, the British also lost a general mood of vital optimism that had prevailed in their culture for almost a century. Some believe British life has never fully recovered.
“One terrible battle with catastrophic losses, and the cultural momentum (centuries in the making) of a great nation is arrested, dissipated. Keegan’s term vital optimism describes a quality of spirit possessed by a community or a person where there is a persuasion that the best is yet to be. Whatever the past, the future will be better” (MacDonald, Mid-Course Correction).
Loss of vital optimism is a problem many struggle with in life. Early childhood, youth and young adult phases are usually full of optimism. But with the pervasive breakdown of families, even many young people today battle significant levels of discouragement.
Fading optimism becomes more of challenge for those in middle and later years of life. I’ve seen it happen in my life and in others. “Ah yes,” we tell ourselves, “we’re more seasoned; more mature; more balanced; more restrained in our judgment. Youthful frivolity is behind us.”
But how far is it to the next step? When does maturity give way to melancholy? When does restraint become a prevailing disincentive, a loss of motivation or even hope? And can a sense of defeat and resignation lead to cynicism and bitterness?
There is a warning that says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15).
Loss of vital optimism can become a serious problem. Pessimism and bitterness are infectious and defiling. If we’re not careful, somewhere along the way, the setbacks and discouragements of life can begin to define our spirit. It might start with a cloudy perspective but it can soon turn into a dark and negative outlook that expects the worst most of the time.
Sometimes a single catastrophic loss can spiral someone into a dark disposition. One major loss can sap the joy and hope out of life. Others go through life collecting smaller grievances until a growing sense of resignation plummets them into deep despair.
How can we avoid or overcome this cycle of setbacks, discouragement and despair?
If you struggle with loss of vital optimism, read the book: Radical Gratitude: Discovering joy through everyday thankfulness (Zondervan). The author, Ellen Vaughn, probed the depths of gratitude and cut a clear path to restored joy. An opening quote to one chapter caused me to pause for deeper reflection.
“It’s a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.”
There is a clear connection between loss of vital optimism and a decreased practice of gratitude! If you’ve lost the vital optimism of life, at the risk of oversimplification, I believe a renewed discipline of gratitude will help you shake the spirit of discouragement. But be aware that, “Few of us want to cozy up to the fact that most often God changes us in the process of ordinary day-to-day dependence on him” (Vaughn).
We express this dependence when we “engage in the perpetual dialogue of gratitude.” Vaughn invites her readers to a life of radical gratitude as a means to “turn the tide, rather than follow along on the lazy downward spiral of negativity.”
“What I have found,” Vaughn wrote, “is that the rhythm of divine renewal beats in the pulse of a purposefully grateful heart.”
Nothing short of divine renewal will lift despondent people out of despair. And be assured that there is a deep connection between divine renewal and a thankful heart.
What does Scripture teach? “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18). Spirit-filled people are “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
Association of thankfulness with the superlatives all, always and everything, justifies Vaugn’s title, “Radical Gratitude.” She exactly right when she recommends that, “Cultivating a grateful heart is not just an add-on nicety, a civil tip of the hat to God as we steamroll through our day. A posture of purposeful, perpetual thanks to God is absolutely central to Christian character.” (And to restoring vital optimism)
If you’re trying to leave the land of despair and restore vital spiritual optimism, Radical Gratitude by Ellen Vaughn offers a great road map.
Perspective forming Scriptures
Isaiah 40:30-31 – “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (NIV)
II Corinthians 4:7-9 – “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 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)
II Corinthians 4:16-18 – “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (ESV)
II Corinthians 12:9-10 – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Romans 12:11-14 – “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (NIV)