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How I Cured Myself of the Pagliacci Syndrome

by Cassidy S. Dale, Jan 9, 2001

“Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.”

Man bursts into tears. Says, “But Doctor… I am Pagliacci.” — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, The Watchmen

I once thought we were living at the end of the world. I believed that we were living in some sort of wasteland, some sort of ground zero. I couldn’t imagine a better future. I felt like we were already living in a world where things had fallen apart, the center did not hold. I saw us living on a flat plain, a desert of fine gray sand the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. I saw the world crumbling into dust. But wasn’t Adam made of dust?

Yes, the future is uncertain. Yes, these are strange days. Yes, change is difficult. Yes, change can be painful. Yes, we may make bad decisions about the future. Yes, we live in an extraordinarily complex society in a confusing age. It is critical, though, to understand that the greater the complexity and uncertainty, the greater the danger – and the hope.

A lot of important questions are asked about the future, but the most important question is often not asked. Our answer to this question is the main determinant of our view of the future and attitudes toward the future. The question is “Is there hope for the future?” And the second question is “Why is there hope?” Everyone needs a theology of hope for the future.

The work of a futurist is only about hope. Hope for the future. But if the futurist (or the minister) has no hope, how can he or she offer any to an anxious, despairing world? The inability to find hope is what I call The Pagliacci Syndrome. The Pagliacci Syndrome is the spiritual disease of hopelessness.

The first decision you must make as a futurist is a conscious one, one that requires a leap of faith. You must decide if you are going to be a hopeful futurist or a hopeless futurist. Every futurist must honestly examine his or her own heart and answer whether or not he or she believes there is hope for the future.

Hopeful futurists believe the future can be better than the present. Hopeful futurists take outrageous leaps of faith. They have faith in the unwritten stories of the future. They have faith Oat good futures can and will be written. They are not necessarily Pollyannas, rather they look for the hope and the possibilities for better futures within even the darkest times. They have faith that there will be a future and that the future can be better than the present or the past.

The hopeful futurist believes nothing is impossible. The hopeful futurist is never cynical. The hopeful futurist has the courage to stand apart from the negativity of the conventional wisdom of the day or finds ways to turn depression and devastation into something liberating. The hopeful futurist is the one with the courage and the imagination to turn ruins into compost.

Hopeless futurists believe the future cannot be better than the present or the past. They are the doomsayers. They believe the story of the future will be one of decline. The optimism of hopeless futurists lies in their scenarios of resistance – that the future can someday be overcome by the perfect answers that lie in the present or past. These days there are more hopeless futurists than hopeful ones, especially in churches.

The gospel is all about hope. As Christians with hope, we can help people who wonder “Is there hope for the future?” answer with a definitive “yes.” In fact, the Christian futurist must answer “yes” even in the face of certain death and defeat. The hopeful Christian futurist does not let desperate circumstances affect the “yes.” The hopeful Christian never becomes cynical, never plays the game of cynicism. The futurist is not afraid to be the only voice of hope – that voice is the one crying out in the wilderness – the one we desperately need.

The futurist plays a different game by different rules – and the name of that game is “Birth” not “Death” or “No point in trying.” The “yes” is the orienting answer in the futurist’s life. It is the only moral and spiritual absolute, and it is taken only on faith. But if we as Christians despair of the days to come, then we are in danger of falling prey to what I call “The Pagliacci Syndrome.” We are called to be emissaries of faith, hope and love to the world, but how can we be emissaries of hope if we have no hope ourselves? A theology of hope is crucial to making tomorrow better than today.

The most important words a Christian futurist can express to others are these six words – “I have hope for the future.” Everything else the futurist does flows from those six words. After that, the futurist conveys stories. “Is there hope for the future?” is a question that requires an honest yes or no answer. “Why is there hope for the future?” requires answers in the form of stories. And every futurist must find and tell his or her own stories.
My reasons for hope…

I have a long, long list and we’ll be spending the rest of the course talking about those reasons. Right here I’ll tell you a bit about the root of my hope for the future. And the root is, if nothing else, that the story is not yet over, no matter how bad things look. The story of our faith is the story of transformation from beyond death, beyond the point of no return. Christ’s story did not end on Friday.

“For all of creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth.” — Romans 8:22

I believe these strange days are a transitional time, not the end times. I believe that the chaos in our present society is a mysterious way of the society renewing itself. These are days when we run out of the obvious forms of hope, obvious forms of meaning, and when we seemingly have run out of valid answers to the larger problems and questions of existence. Decay, despair and destruction do not result in a hell on earth as much as they result in a blank slate – and compost.

With nothing in our way we can write fresh stories. The future is open. We can shape the new, emerging world. In these strange, dark days, I have hope for the future.

I once thought that the world had run out of reasons for hope. That’s where I was wrong. I understand now that even if I can’t see a better future growing in front of me that doesn’t mean that one isn’t possible – or even about to arrive. Even at ground zero there are seeds in the soil. Seeds that are not yet visible. Seeds that are soon to sprout.

The hope of the Kingdom of God lies in the eternal presence and cultivation of potential. The seeds that God plants in the world and in us. And in God’s love that nurtures and cultivates them. In God – his love shown through his son Jesus Christ – and the soul seeds planted in each of us – I find hope. I have hope for the future.

To be sure, these are strange days. These are dark days. These are hopeful days. These are the best days. The best days to be alive. This is the end of the world. This is the beginning of the world. This is the wilderness between two worlds. Here. Today.

In the Bible, every new world begins after a time in the wilderness. Every new creation in the Bible comes after a period of uncertainty, a time of living in the unknown. Every new world begins after the end of a familiar world, a time of one’s understandings of the world being smashed into dust, a time of despair, a time of letting go of what we cannot bear to let go of. And it is in the middle of darkness, in the middle of the night that the new world is born. It only becomes visible at dawn. Midnight is where the day begins.

Our entire society is out in the wilderness, and this is a good thing. It is a blessing. Uncertainty is a gift from God. The wilderness is the womb. We are being born.

The pattern in the Bible is that of people leaving the familiar world, going out into the wilderness, out to a place they do not know, being transformed by God and with God, and then creating a new world with God. It began with Adam and Eve. Some translations of the Bible read that Adam and Eve were “cast out” of the Garden of Eden, but the Hebrew verb is closer to the English verb “expel” – and that Hebrew verb is the same verb used when describing childbirth. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. They were birthed out of the Garden. They were finally at their ninth month – full term. Adam and Eve were born out of the Garden, then they went out into an unknown frontier and they birthed the human race.

The pattern continued. Cain went east of Eden and birthed the first civilization. Noah left the entire world and birthed a new beginning. Abraham birthed the redemptive minority. Jacob became Israel. Moses birthed a nation. The prophets re-created the nation. John the Baptist birthed a Messianic era. Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom. Paul birthed the missionary model for the church. Christians have given birth to much since then.

The pattern continues to this day – and into the future! Paul wrote in Romans 8 that all of creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth. That groaning, that birthing, that creating continues. We are called to leave the Womb, cross our own unique Wildernesses and birth a “Wow” future. And we are called by God to be the midwives for others.

How are we to serve as midwives of God’s intentions being birthed in the world?

We are called to explore.
We are called to explore the emerging cultural and spiritual terrain, to find undiscovered frontiers, emerging unknown places and make them fertile places for God’s intentions.
We are called to take risks.

“Risk” is the secular word for “faith.” Risk-taking is obedience to God. The future is created through risk – through faith in an unrealized dream, an unrealized future, an unrealized Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
We are called to dream. To dream again.

Dreaming new dreams has been difficult recently. During these past few (sometimes) cynical years, many of us have forgotten how to dream. In a cynical time, we have forgotten that we can. This is because we have been living at the ends of things. The end of a century. The end of a millennium. Those endings are now ending. We are called to dream with God – to dream again – to dream up a better world, to dream out loud. And to discern what we are called to do we must dream with God, which is what prayer is.

We are called to create – to birth the future.

Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frank! once wrote, “You are here for a reason and you cannot be replaced.” God loves me that much and has created me for a unique calling, a unique mission. God has already planted a unique seed in my soul. So the questions ask themselves: What am I called to create? What am I called to give birth to? And once I discern this, how am I going to spend the rest of my life? And how can I help construct the foundation of this new, third millennium?

This pattern is an ongoing one, begging certain questions. Individuals aren’t the only ones to be born again – churches are, too. Is it time to be born? Is it time to be born again? Ask yourself these questions:

–What womb are we called to leave?
–What wilderness are we supposed to cross?
–What “wow” are we to give birth to?

The answers to these will be specific to your own personal lives and for your own ministries. I pray you find your answer today and join the ever-growing company of creative Christians that are survivors of the Pagliacci Syndrome.

Questions for Reflection:

1. Is there hope for the future?
2. Why is there hope? List a variety of answers.
3. How/where are you called to be a midwife for someone or something?

Cassidy S. Dale is one of the few trained and degreed futurists in the United States. He holds a Master of Science in Studies of the Future from the University of Houston — one of the first graduate program to offer formal training in futurist skills and perspectives on how societies, marketplaces, technologies and ideologies change over the long term.

Cass has served as a futurist consultant to major nonprofit agencies, educational institutions and law enforcement agencies. He has recently investigated “drivers of change” and “critical uncertainties” affecting subjects such as futures of major urban and rural areas in the United States, generational dynamics, new “memes” (cultural genes) on the global scene, major thematic and theological changes in American Christianity, new markets and practices for higher education, emerging issues affecting the U.S. military chaplaincy, and changing law enforcement needs in rapidly-changing metropolitan areas.

His clients have included Southern Baptist Convention entities, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship entities, conferences within the United Methodist Church, Drew University, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Cass speaks and writes nationwide on futures-related topics and serves on the editorial board of FaithWorks magazine. 

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