Optimistic

I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift

My weekly messages have been following the lead of a 1905 poem written by a Princeton divinity student, Howard Arnold Walter. The one-word title of each message has been based on a character trait specifically mentioned in the lines of Walter’s poem. But this week contains a subtle departure from the routine of the previous seven messages. The title this time is of my own making, since the poem has its own subtle departure from the norm. Instead of identifying a singular trait, Walter listed four actions to define the outward expression of his life; to look up, to laugh, to love and to lift.  

With this lilt of alliteration, we have what I regard to be the unstated virtue of optimism, hence the title. I base my decision on the simple premise that such actions, as the four stated here, require an intentional commitment on our part to first develop a positive attitude. Without this type of heart-felt outlook on life the many disappointments we encounter almost daily will overwhelm us before we even attempt to look up, laugh, love and lift. And while these four things can be done without any hint of sincerity, they lose their true purpose when they lack an honest enthusiasm. For while all can be faked, they will lack the power to generate a collaborative sense of trust between us and the people we seek to influence with our words and works of encouragement.

To look up likely had a double meaning for Walter. Up is the location we conveniently assign to the kingdom of God in the heavenly realms, which bear no relationship to the heavens of our solar system. Looking up for Walter would be to fix his thoughts and aspirations on the source of his optimism. It would also suggest the selfless nature of his purpose by indicating a hope beyond human manipulation. For some this smacks of pie-in-the-sky fortitude, a myth needed to assuage the miseries of life. For others like Walter, it is the process by which we discover the evidence of things not seen, the substance of things hoped for.

To laugh is not always an easy thing to do. Hard times can generally make it difficult to avoid sounding dismissive or derisive in our laughter. But our sense of humor need not fail us even then. One of the most pleasing and infectious things we can do is smile. This is not a laugh, but its origin is the same. And it provides a similar tonic with less noise.

To love, especially for someone like a divinity student, means the ultimate in self-denial and sacrifice. It’s most splendid definition was written by the Apostle Paul, who termed it the greatest thing in the world. His soliloquy, written to a small group of faithful in the Greek city of Corinth, is the gold standard by which we can know what it means to love. His list of love’s attributes is like an ethereal string of pearls. Love is patient, kind, truthful, protective, trusting, hopeful, persevering and more. In the Christian belief system embraced by Walter, love never fails.

To lift follows the other three virtuous actions. It is an act of service best performed when we believe in a positive source outside of ourselves, allowing us to laugh in spite of our circumstances and performed with the grace that comes from a self-denying love for others. To lift has the power of improving the physical condition of others at our own expense or to change their outlook by way of a kind, encouraging word. People need someone to help them cope with disappointments, which are pervasive in this life of ours. This relentless encounter with the demons of discouraging circumstances means that there is no end to the challenge of “lifting” the spirits of others, which fortunately has the retroactive process of lifting our own. This level of service can take us beyond the easier challenges of improving physical difficulties to the deeper challenges, when we consider what it takes to lift another’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. The burden is heavy, but the lifting is sorely needed.

Walter was not a strong person physically. He died at a young age due to a weak heart. But this did not prevent him from setting an aggressive emotional regimen for himself. His was a daily habit of looking up, laughing, loving and lifting impelled by a sense of optimism, proved to be an impressive exercise for a person frail of body, but strong of mind and soul. His legacy is intact through his written word, another exercise, though one residing outside the poetic form of his own alliterative devise.  

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