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Realistic Optimism

By Tricia Kinsman
In Hope & Healing
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I used to think I could define myself by what our pastor Barry would call a “realistic optimist.” I think those of us who are believers really should live in that space; seeing things as they really are yet being optimistic that God is at work and we have hope. It took walking through some particularly dark times to realize that I’d been living according to the wrong definition of this term my entire life.

I have lived with a LOT of loss in my life. When my kids were school aged, we moved almost every year. I had to give up my church, my friends, and my home that I always worked so naively on, thinking we wouldn’t move again. My son was chronically ill, so this meant leaving doctors I’d finally found and trusted each time. Then, after 20 years of marriage, the abuse in my home became clear to me and divorce followed. That was a big one for all of us. When the second divorce came and I re-examined my life and my heart, I wondered what God was wanting from me. What had I missed?

Sometime around 2006, things started to shift in me. Life was heavier, I cried much more readily, and I was starting to realize that what I thought was realistic optimism could more accurately be called “pulling myself up by my own bootstraps”. I had done this so well over all those years that I didn’t even know my own heart at that point. I was choosing to just say, “Oh well. This is what I have to carry. Now get on with it. Jesus will give you strength and get you through it.” What I never thought to ask was, “Did He actually want me to carry it at all?”

So guess who landed in the counselor’s office? Right! The strong one. The one who thought she could carry all the loss, all the pain, and all the hurt with the help of Jesus! But in this process, my counselor was helping me see that I had never named the losses and fully grieved any of them. Instead, I had just moved on to the next thing. So we started the process of grief over each thing that caused pain. When I looked at the volume of work I had written over three months’ time, I was astounded that I ever thought I could carry it alone. But there was still much God needed me to understand about Him and about myself.

About seven years later I met a wonderful man! I truly thought that he was representative of God’s redemption in my life. He was not the beautiful, handsome man of a girl’s dreams, but a gentle, sensitive soul that understood my losses and understood my adult kids. He loved God and loved me in an undeniable way. We married after a little over a year of dating. That’s when everything changed in my world.

There was a mental illness hidden to me prior to marriage that caused my husband’s anger, rage and verbal abuse to spin out of control in the evenings. It was beyond my wildest dreams. We hung in there for six months because he was always repentant by morning, but I didn’t understand that his unmedicated mental state would soon escalate and cause even more harm.

One evening he got upset with me over some chocolate I had told him I was saving. He wanted it and told me I was being too rigid. Within 20 minutes of that conversation, He walked into the living room and shot himself. And THAT, my friends, was the point in my life where I could carry no more. I saw that my definition of realistic optimism was skewed. Up until this breaking point, I had been able to translate “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” into “I can do this alone with just the help of the Holy Spirit.” Not anymore.

I crumbled under the weight of all of it: the trauma of what I saw and heard and the guilt that tugged at me daily. I second-guessed myself constantly. “If I had done this or that would there have been a different outcome?” “Did I not love him well enough?” I felt the weight of another relationship loss. Another loss my kids and granddaughter had to go through. And the financial devastation… we were to close on our house two weeks after, but I couldn’t afford it on my own income, and we lost a lot of money.

This dark night of the soul was settling around me and I finally had to face what I hadn’t understood throughout all the losses in my life: I cannot carry my own burdens alone. I had no experience, no well to draw from in this loss. I had nothing I could offer myself in it, and I finally gave up. I told God that I would sit with Him, and allow Him to sit with me, but that was all I could commit to. I questioned everything about His goodness and kindness for the first time in my life. And let me tell you, that was despair for me. My faith had always been strong even in the most difficult times, but everything was up for grabs at this point.

For about six months after, I sat. I didn’t do much else. I questioned, I cried a LOT, and I told Him to His face what I thought about His kindness and goodness. It wasn’t a gentle, humble questioning. This was a tearful, angry crying out. His power over my surrendered life caused me to be afraid of what might be required next. How could He allow me to walk through this if He is kind and good?

Then one day a little voice down deep, very weak and barely audible, asked me, “Who do you choose?” I examined that question from every angle, and I knew I only had two choices. I could live my life on my terms, or I could believe that God had defined goodness and kindness in His own unfathomable way, and who was I to determine what those ways were? I am not omniscient. He sees beginning and end. Funny thing, He always had my life…this I was sure of. So, I chose to hand Him back my heart and my burdens because I could no longer carry any of it.

That was when the true, lifetime healing began. I realized now so much of what I thought I needed to do was really attached to voices in my head, tapes that replayed over and over from developmental trauma. I needed truth-tellers, those who would allow me to talk and share my pain again and again. The authors of Mending the Soul say that “because our trauma has happened in community, we have to find our healing in community.” Had I not set it all down, recognized I had nothing left to offer, and allowed the healing God brought me through community, I would have never found the truth: that we were never meant to carry the weight of our burdens alone.

My realistic optimism, so skewed before, finally came into focus. I now know that to be realistic I have to name fully the good and the bad, grieving the bad and praising God for the good. And my optimism is a new hope of a lighter burden as I allow others into my story and allow Jesus to carry it for me.


Tricia directs our Hope and Healing ministries at IBC. If you are interested in the variety of ways you can find hope, healing and community, you can visit www.irvingbible.org/hopeandhealing.

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