Maybe you would think that is because they are realists. Even though one is a monk and the other a priest, you may think that perhaps they look at the world as it is and find it hard to expect good things. But that would be wrong.
These two great teachers are not optimists because the inclination to despair, which follows closely in the shadow of optimism, is not part of who they are.
“Ahhh,” you might say, “They are a couple of Pollyannas, always looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.”
But that, too, would be wrong. These are men who have lived through apartheid (for Tutu) and exile (for the Dalai Lama). They know the capacity we humans have to treat one another inhumanely.
Like them, there are few among us who would fail to agree that we live in a time when there is much wrong with the world. Incessant war surely would rise to the top of many of our lists as we consider humanity’s need for redemption.
What of the “isms” (racism, sexism, etc.) that have for so long been hidden from view and affected so many? With their scabs now torn away, are we not horrified to see the festering wounds they are in our society?
Then there are the deceit, the indecency, and that next school shooting. And all these ailments pale in the face of the challenges our planet faces.
Considering all these negatives, how are we to avoid the despair into which it could be so easy to fall? Do the archbishop and the dalai lama have something to teach us?
Certainly, they draw from the deep well of their respective traditions – Buddhism and Christianity.
They may be teachers to whom we would do well to listen. Are we ready? Do we want to learn what they have to teach us?
The Book of Joy, a New York Times Bestseller, invites us into a conversation between these two great men that happened in 2015. In the chapter on despair, they imply that our focus on individualism has the unhelpful effect of turning us in on ourselves.
If it is peace and joy we want in our lives, the dalai lama says, “We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective.”
That sounds reasonable. A sense of proportion and a wider perspective do not, however, come that readily to many of us. We are distracted by everything with which we stay busy.
Our engagement with the world is a limited and superficial one because of all that busyness. And so, to cope with the pain of the world, we coat our very thin and unsubstantial relationships with a veneer of optimism. When the pain becomes too much, though, or when the emotional overlay no longer protects us, optimism devolves to despair.
Part of that happens because our engagements with the world are not so much “engagement with” as “information about.”
Even our connections with those closest to us have become thinner and thinner than in any generation before us.
Not long ago, I heard a speaker on neuroscience reflect that because our interactions with one another are so mediated by technology, we are changing what it means to be human. The great religions of the world have always agreed that it is only when we go deeply into ourselves that we will encounter our true humanity, the humanity we share with all other people.
I wonder if Tutu and the dalai lama would also say that is where we will begin to gain the proportion and perspective we need.
Letting go of our busyness, quieting our minds, sinking into our deepest hearts, there, hope will arise and ephemeral optimism for our future will give way to the certain and profound joy that is available at the heart of existence.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.