I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the “glass half-full” versus “glass half-empty” measurement of optimism and pessimism, because it implies that we can know the shape and size of the glass into which fate is poured. Optimism might be better defined as seeking faint light among deep shadows, treasuring the past and looking to the future with anticipation while striving to see the present with clarity. Let the ream of what didn’t happen, and what might have been, belong to the pessimists. They will always find the world around them inferior to the grand story they would have written, if given editorial control over all of Creation.
It’s easy to think that way, in the face of unexpected tragedy, senseless cruelty, unbearable pain, and unfathomable loss. It is difficult to be truly humble at such moments, admitting we don’t know enough to comprehend a design painted with so many tears. Should we be thankful for all the days we were given with a loved one… or bitter about all the days we were denied? When a life is cut short, there are hours in which the best of us struggle to answer that question with certainty.
Those hours pass, and eventually we find peace. It arrives like the first drift of snow on a quiet winter evening, soft and unheralded, surrounding us before we look up from our thoughts and notice the world has changed. We realize that a world made larger by the arrival of a cherished friend is not truly made smaller by their passing, for what they added can never truly be subtracted. We finally hear what they’ve been trying to say since the moment their voices were stilled: Go on, live, be happy, I’m right beside you. We find our share of the peace they have been given, and the pain of loss fades into that quiet night, replaced by the lingering anticipation of a faraway reunion, and the warmth of memory held close. Grief over what has been taken is, at long last, swept away by gratitude for what has been given. The true wisdom of the optimist is revealed: it doesn’t matter if the glass is half-full or not. What matters is that it’s not empty, and never will be.
I don’t know if we live in the best of all possible worlds. Making that judgment would require me to know all that is possible, and I haven’t been foolish or arrogant enough to think I could contain such knowledge since… well, I’m pretty sure it was a long time ago. In fact, I think it might have been the day before I finally found peace after my first terrible loss.
Two days after Christmas this year, three days before her birthday, I lost a dear friend who seemed to be on the mend after a long illness. She looked great on Christmas Day, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, serenaded by torn wrapping paper and gasps of delighted surprise. Tell me: should I be angry because she was taken from us over the holiday weekend, or grateful beyond measure for the gift of that last happy Christmas Day, when it looked like everything would be all right, and there was not a hint of dread to be found among our company of family and friends? Even when it was time to tell the doctors to let her go, I couldn’t help thinking: thank God for that one last perfect afternoon. It will always be perfect. No following day has any power to damage it.
My friend’s final gift will be a measure of the peace she has found, shipped on varying schedules to everyone who loved her. Delivery is guaranteed, but there will be some long and difficult days ahead, waiting for its quiet and unheralded arrival.