Optimism vs. Hope – and Other Differences that Matter

I remember reading a long time ago that there were fifty different words in Eskimo languages for snow. I tried to imagine how to tease out nuances in texture, timing or other qualities that would be of significance. But I realized that the words were linked to Inuit cultural experience, and I came up short.

This exercise came to mind recently, after someone asked me if I was optimistic about the resiliency of American democracy amidst the current tidal wave of polarization and disruption.  “No,” I replied, “but I am hopeful.” That set me to pondering the differences between pairs of related words. The distinctions I make are surely idiosyncratic as well as culturally bound, but some seem important.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, “Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better” (From To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility).

Hope requires far more courage than optimism. Since it is an active virtue rather than a passive one, I tend to favor it—even though optimism can be valuable too, as long as it does not devolve into complacency. Sacks also points out that Hebrew Bible (my favorite book) is not particularly optimistic, but it is one of the great literatures of hope.

Mindfulness vs. Thoughtfulness

Mindfulness is very “now,” as we rightly try to cultivate real presence amidst the information-overloaded distractions of our multi-tasking, contemporary life. We may borrow practices or habits of mind from Eastern traditions or seek out comparable teachings in our own heritage.

But it does not often solve the challenge that our busy-ness presents to cultivating thoughtfulness. Mindfulness enhances our own being in the world; thoughtfulness is designed to enhance the lives of others.

Charity vs. Tzedakah

That word pair led me to one that often comes to mind: the critical difference between thinking of acts that physically improve the lives of others as “charity,” versus recognizing them as tzedakahTzedakah is the Hebrew translation of charity, but it derives from the root for justice. 

Charity comes from the Latin caritas, related to the heart. We may feel love toward people in need and elect to help them. But justice requires that we help them whether we feel the love or not. Justice says it is not an act of generosity to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met; it is required.

Happiness vs. Joy

Sometimes I think that our Declaration of Independence didn’t aim high enough when it named the pursuit of happiness as the climax of our divinely-bestowed rights. What if we aimed for that more transformational, awe-filled embodiment of joy?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was perhaps contemplating a similar distinction when he wrote that we are losing the power of celebration, settling instead to be entertained:

Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state—it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle. Entertainment is a diversion, a distraction… from the preoccupations of daily living. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions…To celebrate is to share in a greater joy, to participate in an eternal drama.

From Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man? 1965.

Do you have any word pairs with nuanced differences that seem particularly significant to you?

Rachel S. Mikva is the Rabbi Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and Senior Faculty Fellow for the InterReligious Institute. She works at the intersections of exegesis, culture and ethics. She also enjoys playing with words in crossword puzzles, Scrabble, and any other form—except puns. Rabbi Dr. Mikva contributed to the recently released book on vocation, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Author: Rachel S. Mikva

I was raised with the benign illusion that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up. Although born with many privileges and blessed with loving, supportive parents, it wasn’t quite true: alas, becoming a ballerina wasn’t in the cards. At age seven, I briefly entertained becoming a nun (after watching a film with a wonderful vestal heroine), until I learned all that was involved. In junior high, my English teacher thought I might become the first female president, but after the 2016 election, I was glad I didn’t try that. I was a designer and production manager in the theater before becoming a rabbi—a progression that makes more sense than you might think; theater and ritual both have the capacity to transform our perspective through the power of sacred drama. Eventually, believing that a rabbi is above all a teacher, and remembering that the people who made the biggest impact in my life (outside of family) were my teachers, I became a professor. I currently teach at Chicago Theological Seminary, where I serve as the Rabbi Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies and Senior Faculty Fellow at the InterReligious Institute. Not a ballerina, but it keeps me on my toes.

5 thoughts on “Optimism vs. Hope – and Other Differences that Matter”

    1. I’ve thought about empathy and compassion before, and sense that people are more disposed toward one than the other in what moves them. I tend to internalize the feeling (empathy), whereas my compassion gets stuck in my head. The distinction you make could be quite different.

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