Finding reasons to hope amid the pessimism

A member of the Missionaries of Charity laughs as she interacts with children in 2016 at Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, a children's orphanage founded by St. Teresa of Kolkata in India. (CNS photo | Rupak De Chowdhuri, Reuters)

My father-in-law, Joseph, was a wonderful guy. An immigrant who passionately loved America, he was hardworking, honest and thrifty. He had a laborer’s hands but a poet’s mind. Joseph had seen enough of life, however, to make him a bit jaundiced about human nature.

My wife recently found a page of a magazine he had clipped many years ago. It had a series of "quotable quotes," but only one he underlined. It was attributed to George Will: "The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”

It feels a little bit like what being a Catholic is like these days. There are lots of opportunities for pessimism in all the headlines, and we might feel like we are too rarely being "pleasantly surprised.”

That there are grounds for pessimism there is no denying. One might fervently believe that God will not desert his Church and still feel utterly dismayed at what seems like an endless series of revelations and headlines. Looking at the past 20 years, it seems like most of our surprises have been unpleasant.

The problem with pessimism is that it can become its own addiction, its own crutch protecting us from caring too much. We start looking for reasons to validate it, and then we risk becoming anti-Pollyannas, actively seeking out the bad news. Do this long enough, and we’ll all become journalists!

Nobody’s made much money selling good news stories, but it might be useful if we stop looking at the forest once a while and gaze on the trees. All around us are terrific people doing yeoman’s work for the Lord without publicity or acclaim.

I’ll bet that if you had to think of someone in your parish who is selfless and admirable, holy in a rolled-up-sleeves sort of way, you could think of a person who fits that description in a nanosecond. Maybe you are one of those people.

I recently connected with an old friend, Paul Wilkes. Our friendship began when I wrote a review criticizing a book of his. He initiated contact, and over time we grew to respect our differences and appreciate what we held in common. In recent years, however, we had drifted apart, and I only recently found out what he has been up to.

About 14 years ago, during a “trip of a lifetime” to India, providence led Paul to a Salesian orphanage, where he met a little girl who had been intentionally blinded with a darning needle to make her a “better beggar.” His encounter with her and many other young girls seeking shelter in this orphanage from a cruel world outside moved him to get involved.

Back in the States, his career path changed radically. He began raising funds to build for those girls what he would call a “Home of Hope.”

One good deed begat another. Return trips to India made it clear that “there are millions of girls on the streets, orphans, abandoned, sex trafficked, disabled.” So he kept going. He spoke at parishes, raised money and has helped to build 16 more Homes of Hope sheltering more than a thousand girls. He and his donors are providing schools as well.

If you look at the millions, you can become a pessimist. When you look at one, the surprise is that you find reason to hope. It’s not a bad reminder this Christmas season. There are a lot of children out there waiting for their Magi. They might be waiting for you.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].