The spiritual life is a maze, and, as a person grows in her awareness of its twists and turns, she realizes certain basic truths. In many respects, she earns her awareness of these truths since she can only find their full meaning while wrestling with them in the midst of life’s joys and sorrows, disappointments and hopes.
The truths of the spiritual life therefore, are not removed esoteric realities. They’re tangible, felt, and sometimes more real than the state of affairs in front of a person.
Among these foundational spiritual truths is the reality that life is never exactly what a person wants. This is one of those perennial pieces of wisdom that is both stark and unmovable. For some, this truth is the birth of a sense of transcendence.
There really is something outside of herself that she cannot control, manipulate, or argue down. This reality is so basic that a person cannot grow either in maturity or holiness until it’s accepted, and surrendered to.
Reality wins. Life is not always what a person wants.
If a person rebels against this basic truth, however, then she can easily become prey to pessimism. Pessimism is a dark spirit in the spiritual life that covers everything in negativity, sarcasm, and destructive criticism.
Once it enters a person’s soul, it can get the best of her and is hard to shake off. Oftentimes, a pessimistic person feels herself justified and even enlightened above others. She cannot see beyond the very small and suffocating world of her own pessimism.
There’s a big world beyond such darkness however, and each person is called to the spiritual freedom that comes with living life according to truth, especially when it’s hard to accept.
For the person who accepts the truth, and especially the truth that life is not always what she will want it to be, the world begins to open up and she can see things that were impossible to see before. Suddenly, God’s presence and providence are seen throughout the person’s life and various experiences.
Life is no longer approached as a problem to be solved, but is met as a mystery to be lived. Life is seen as possessing a goodness given by the Creator.
In looking at the world, the spiritual neophyte begins to see more than just mistakes, negligence, or imperfection. The person begins to see beauty and progress and feel deeply a sense of consolation and hope.
Avoiding the pessimism of the day was the rallying cry of Pope St. John XXIII as he convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 leading the Catholic Church into a contemporary engagement with the world. In his comments opening the council, “Good Pope John” admonished against “the prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world was at hand.”
Pope Francis has continued this campaign against pessimism.
Early in his papacy, he said: “We never give in to pessimism, that bitterness that the devil offers us every day.” Later in his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the pope departed from regular theological language and simply taught: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’.”
And through his almost four year papacy, Pope Francis has continued to attempt to steer believers and the entire human family away from pessimism and into an appreciation of spiritual truths and the goodness of life.
Reflected in the lives of the spiritual masters and some of the best people within the human family, from John XXIII and Pope Francis, to Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, to Father Maximilian Kolbe and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the pressing task along the journey of life is to accept spiritual truths and see the goodness of life, cherish it, and contribute to it.
Avoiding the lies and laziness of pessimism, every human person is called to encounter goodness. In this way, pessimism grows up and cynicism matures. Life becomes easier and joyful, even very fun.
If a person avoids spiritual truth and goodness, she runs the risk of going through life being angry about the “messed up” things of the world rather than learning to be entertained by things and to laugh, even by the fallen and “messy” things of life.
Instead of being caught in such a slavery as seeing things as incomplete versions of what they should be, the spiritual person is able to see life as it is and can appreciate the goodness that’s right here right now.