Monthly Archives: August 2012

“Dreaming is hard. It requires risks. It requires you to own the fact that you are capable of something great.”

If you’ve got a spare 35 minutes, this fantastic talk by astrophysicist Pamela Gay is absolutely worth your time. Delivered at the annual Amazing Meeting, the speech touches on many things — the future of American crewed spaceflight (Gay is more optimistic about this than Neil deGrasse Tyson is), some cool Citizen Science projects, and the importance of standing up against sexist bullshit, at professional conferences and everywhere else. But underlying it all, Gay lays out a powerfully compelling case for optimism as a stance toward society’s problems — optimism not just as idle wishful thinking, but (as “No Impact Man” Colin Beavan and Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim have explained) as a basis for courage and action.

From the transcript:

It’s a lot easier to do nothing… easier to lose hope that anything can even be done. And there are people out there who would encourage despair.

If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s, you may remember a movie called “Neverending Story”. It came out when I was a dorky little kid. This movie contained a certain giant wolf who totally understands trolls and their effect of creating their own great nothing in the world. (link) When asked why he is helping the great nothing destroy their world, this wolf responds, “It’s like a despair, destroying this world. … people who have no hopes are easy to control.”

Looking around the internets, I see a lot of people sitting around trolling, and a lot people experiencing despair. There are YouTube videos of people complaining, and blog posts of people expressing their hurt, and in many cases there are legitimate reasons for people to be upset. There are people dying because we’ve lost herd immunity (link). There are lesbian teens in texas being killed for falling in love (link). There are so many cases of abuse that it hurts to read the news. There are lots of real reasons to be frustrated about the world we live in and it is easy to complain… and it is easy to lose hope.

It is dreaming that is hard.

The Neverending story, in its childhood tale of morality, addresses this too. Through the voice of the Childlike Empress, the boy outside the story is asked, “Why don’t you do what you dream, Bastian?” Bastian replies the way I think so many of us reply when when asked why we don’t follow our wildest dreams, “But I can’t, I have to keep my feet on the ground!” (link)

Dreaming is hard. It requires risks. It requires you to own the fact that you are capable of something great.

A few years ago, I came across a powerful quote that was attributed to anonymous.

“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ” (link to old blog post on this quote)

I’d challenge you to let your feet fly off the ground and I’d challenge you to dream big and let your light push away the darkness of dispair in the world.

I challenge you to change the world.

There’s much more, and you can read the entire thing here.

More reasons for optimism here.

(via Bad Astronomy)

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Humanism and secularism, defined

So what’s humanism? I had a go at this question way back when I started this blog, but this video by the British Humanist Association offers a much clearer introduction:

And from the always-lucid British YouTube user QualiaSoup, here’s a very clear presentation on secularism and its views on church/state separation, gay marriage, and education — as relevant (or perhaps even more so) in the US as it is in the UK:

(via Tim Minchin)

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The angry optimism of Gore Vidal

I haven’t read anything by Gore Vidal, who passed away yesterday. But after Takeaway host Celeste Headlee’s fascinating conversation with writer John Nichols about Vidal’s legacy, I’m thinking I probably should. Here’s a snippet:

Celeste Headlee: We’re talking about a man who gleefully said he thought we were watching the decline of American civilization. I wonder if it’s fair to call Gore Vidal a pessimist?

John Nichols: No, I think it’s not. It is true that because of his amazing intellect, his remarkable delight in all things, he contained pessimism within him. Walt Whitman’s line about containing multitudes certainly applied to Gore Vidal. But the truth is, in knowing him over the years, I came to see him as a great optimist. He believed in the American experiment to such an extent that he was still incredibly capable of getting angry about its missteps — of getting angry about when his country did the wrong thing. […] He delighted in impeachment; he delighted in something that most people see as a great political crisis, because he saw it as one of those places where the people rise up and hold a leader to account. And so he was always believing in, always fascinated by, explosions of democracy.

Headlee: So much so that he at one point called for a new constitutional convention to fix the mistakes of the founders.

Nichols: Absolutely. And you know, the funny thing is that if you know about the founders, you would know that they would have been right with him. The truth is that Jefferson suggested that the worst thing that one generation could do to the next was to hand it a constitution and say “You must live by this.” Gore Vidal really believed that.

Fascinating. And yes, this is one of the things I’m always trying to communicate when making the case for optimism: that it isn’t an attitude of blithe happiness, or of ignoring all the grave problems that face us, but rather a commitment to ideals and to the notion that positive change is possible through human agency, on both an individual and a societal level. Optimism isn’t the opposite of anger; rather, it’s the opposite of despair, of the poisonous notion that there’s nothing to be done. Indeed, anger is often the necessary first step towards change. And to believe in change is to be an optimist.

(Image via The National Post)

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