Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Optimists and Pessimists

Tuesday, June 1, 2010 -- Week of Proper 4, Year Two
Justin, Martyr at Rome, c. 167

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 969)
Psalms 45 (morning)       47, 48 (evening)
Ecclesiastes 2:16-26
Galatians 1:18 - 2:10
Matthew 13:53-58

Life is difficult. 

We've spent a week with the Proverbs, an optimistic collection of wise and pithy statements, grounded in the confidence that the world makes sense and works justly.  Those who seek wisdom, do justice and honor God will be blessed, Proverbs assures us, and those who do not listen to God and who are hostile to their neighbor will reap calamity. 

Not so! says the Teacher.  Ecclesiastes, along with Job, stands in conversation and argument with Proverbs.  Life is not so linear and just, according to the vision of this other piece of wisdom tradition.  It is better to be wise than to be a fool, yes.  It is good to enjoy your toil, enjoy the work itself.  Regardless of your success, you will lose all at your death and leave the fruit of your toil to another who did not work for it.  Who knows if your descendants will be fools?  It is enough for humans "to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil."  Just remember that it is all passing, including yourself.

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes stand in tension with one another.  They are both treasured as sacred writ, lying side by side in our Bibles.  Their coexistence invites all of us to pause before making simple assertions.  They remind us of the complexity of life.

Optimists may tend to prefer Proverbs.  Pessimists may lean toward Ecclesiastes.  We need the both.  Humanity and the church needs the conversation and wisdom which comes from both directions.  Too much of Proverbs leads to silly certainties that can be blind to injustice and ambiguity.  Too much Ecclesiastes leads to cynical misanthropy and selfish indulgence.  Shakespeare's Polonius is a caricature of Proverbs; in some sense Hamlet is frozen by his tendency toward Ecclesiastes-style cynicism.

There are some who say we are born in different places along the optimism-pessimism continuum.  There seems to be some innate tendency in each of us to be oriented toward "Proverbs or Ecclesiastes."  It is not unlike our different tendencies toward introversion and extraversion.  I've been fascinated to read some recent research that contends that conservative and liberal tendencies have inborn, genetic origins. 

It gives me pause.  I tend to be an optimistic, liberal and extraverted person.  I need friends who are pessimistic, conservative and introverted.  Such friends offer me perspective and balance, a broader view of reality and a check against the tendencies of my own limited experience.  As I think about my life, I've often been drawn to just such persons as friends. 

It is important that the Church has retained and valued both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes/Job as authoritative sources of wisdom in our tradition.  We need them both.  A healthy community will embrace people of diverse views, making room for their inclusion and for their shared wisdom and their shared foolishness.  



Audio podcast: Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week. Click the following link: Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at www.missionstclare.com
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at www.stpaulsfay.org

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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