Irrational optimism: Love & courage

by | Feb 11, 2024

I try hard to be an optimist even when I don’t see a way forward. Nevertheless, I’ve left jobs and situations after concluding that the grass must surely be greener in a different pasture.

But did I make the best decision? On my more optimistic days, I’ll answer yes, despite a loud voice demanding attention, screaming, “Are you sure?”

As we come to the end of our first series in 2024, it’s taking a lot of energy for me to remain optimistic about the future of our country. I’m grateful for the attention to detail and thoughtful reflection offered by David Leonhardt in his book Ours was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream. I’ve used content and quotes liberally from his book over the past five weeks and learned a great deal about the forces that shaped our current political landscape.

I’m also grateful for our author’s optimism, even as he writes, “American democracy today seems more vulnerable than many people imagined it ever could.” So is optimism, at this point, irrational?

Michael Fishbein, in an article titled “Irrational Optimism: The Entrepreneur’s Blessing and Curse” describes optimism bias as a “cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that they are less at risk of experiencing a negative event.”

Fishbein was writing about the risks involved in starting a business while facing the reality that almost three-quarters of new businesses no longer exist after five years. This dismal track record for new business starts suggests that at least some entrepreneurs suffer from irrational optimism.

In his article, Fishbein emphasizes informed optimism. Remain optimistic but realistic about the challenges and risk. Risking failure requires courage.

But when it comes to restoring the factors that make the American dream possible, Leonhardt argues that irrational optimism is not our fundamental problem. Instead, our progress is hampered by cynicism and negativity. An attitude echoed by presidential candidates when trying to convince us they can implement change for the good.

Pessimism seems rational since the problems we face are overwhelming. And we clearly don’t agree on the best path forward nor which candidates for political office are more likely to get us there.

I’ve been moved by the kind words shared by friends and the admirers of the recently deceased country singer Toby Keith. In a New York Times article, Bill Friskics-Warren writes “Mr. Keith was often a lightning rod for controversy, especially where politics were concerned.”

“I don’t apologize for being patriotic,” Keith replied in a 2007 interview with Newsday. This came after releasing his controversial song,  “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which he wrote in response to both the 9/11 attacks and the death of his father, a disabled veteran. For years, he described himself as a conservative Democrat, but later said he re-registered as an independent.

In one song titled “If I Was Jesus,” Toby Keith sings “If I was Jesus, I’d have some friends that were poor. I’d run around with the wrong crowd. Man, I’d never be bored. Then I’d heal me a blind man, get myself crucified by politicians and preachers who got something to hide.”

Perhaps he is on to something. There is a certain wisdom in modeling our lives after Jesus, who portrayed a realistic optimism grounded in His knowledge of a certain future despite the circumstances surrounding him.

One of the primary characteristics attributed to God is wisdom. The Book of Proverbs positions itself as a book dedicated to teaching wisdom. The book promises to teach you how to live intelligently and how to be honest, just, and fair.

Right now, we’re short on wisdom. Honesty, justice and fairness are not fair descriptions of our country. The American Dream was hijacked by well-meaning, but ill-informed voters, wooed by self-serving political leaders.

Our lack of investment in education and transportation explains, in part, why the cost of income support and healthcare continue to rise as a percent of our economy. Our healthcare system is the most expensive and least effective among prosperous nations. We lag most other nations in the education of persons under 50 and the efficiency of our transportation systems.

Meanwhile, the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us widens. Our solution won’t be found in electing politicians lacking in wisdom and disinterested in honesty, fairness and justice for all.

But I’m optimistic, even if my optimism is irrational.

The Proverbs can teach you how to live intelligently and how to be honest, just, and fair
Proverbs 1:3

Joy-Ann Reid offered tremendous insight into what it will take for our optimism to prove rational. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, she said, “Small acts of courage can save our democracy, but to have courage you have to love something… To really have courage you have to access that love.”

But my optimism isn’t irrational. We’re created in the image of a God who loves us and all of creation. And my optimism is grounded in my faith that love will overcome lies, name-calling and dishonest politicians.

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Pastor Tommy


Parts of our series was inspired by David Leonhardt. Ours was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream. New York: Penguin Random House, 2023.

Bill Friskics-Warren. “Toby Keith, Larger-Than-Life Country Music Star, Dies at 62.” © New York Times, Feb. 6, 2024. Retrieved from: link.

Phil Madeira and Chuck Cannon. “If I Was Jesus.” © Produced ByToby Keith & James Stroud, November 4, 2003.

Michael Fishbein. “Irrational Optimism: The Entrepreneur’s Blessing and Curse.” © Michael Fishbein. Medium, Sep 1, 2016. Retrieved from: link

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