Tag Archives: Optimism

The case for optimism, cont’d: Even today

Trying really hard to make that case today. Josh Marshall tries too:

There is a lot of fear. I know. I feel it. At such a moment I come back to a thought I’ve told family members at times of stress or grief. Optimism isn’t principally an analysis of present reality. It’s an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in. If everything seems great, there’s no need for optimism. The river of good news just carries you along.

We need optimism now more than ever. Perhaps it shouldn’t be called optimism. Perhaps it’s simply the grim strength to get up and do what needs to be done. Day after day after day.

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“We were made to be awesome”

Kid President makes the case for optimism: “We can cry about it, or we can dance about it.”

More Kid President here.

(via TED)

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“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”

                                                         The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

This is from the extraordinary poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert — which, I think, elegantly and perfectly makes the case for optimism in the face of all the million ways this world can break. It’s worth reading in full here.

In a similar spirit, Bill Hayes offers an appreciation of aliveness:

What is the opposite of a perfect storm? That is what this was, one of those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and display every possible permutation of beauty. Oliver said it well as we took up our plates and began heading back downstairs: “I’m glad I’m not dead.” This came out rather loudly, as he is a bit deaf. Even so, he looked surprised by his own utterance, as if it were something he was feeling but didn’t really mean to say aloud — a thought turned into an exclamation.

“I’m glad you’re not dead, too,” said a neighbor gaily, taking up the refrain. “I’m glad we’re all not dead,” said another. There followed a spontaneous raising of glasses on the rooftop, a toast to the setting sun, a toast to us.

I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.

After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.

The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause —- to memorize moments of the everyday.

The rest here.

More reasons for optimism here.

(h/t The Dish; image via National Geographic)

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The country we carry in our hearts

Springsteen wrote about it a few years too early, but last night was a glorious chance to see that envisioned country, to grasp the promise of that hoped-for America made real. This wasn’t just a victory speech. This was a magnificent affirmation of that shining ideal of E pluribus unum towards which we always look: the beacon, in any and every storm, that guides all our ships home.

Are we divided? Perhaps. But Obama, like Christopher Hitchens, gets it — that debate and argument, even vigorous and bitter ones, are the crucible in which you test the mettle of ideas and eventually (painfully, tortuously) arrive at truth. (“Heat not light” is a misguided dismissal of conflict and confrontation; “heat produces light” is more accurate both as science and as metaphor, as Hitchens often observed.) Yes, this campaign was long, brutal, and sometimes petty and ridiculous — and it was frustrating for all of us who think that our own beliefs and values are self-evidently true and should be universally accepted without complaint. But it’s never a bad thing to revisit first principles — to be forced to settle (or at least reconsider) the existential questions that determine how we treat each other and how we make a nation together. In the President’s words:

That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

The President, of course, points out that argumentation can only be the beginning; that our national debates must never lose sight of the need to seek and find common ground, in order to move forward together. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” said Lincoln after his reelection — and there’s more than a conscious echo of that here:

Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.

But that common bond is where we must begin.

And more than an echo of Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech as well:

But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

He cuts through the clutter and noise to get at the very essence of American community:

This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.

And, like many others, he compellingly makes the case for optimism — not idle Pollyannaism, but clear-eyed hope with a spine of steel:

I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

And in a rousing finale that recalls both his own electrifying 2004 keynote speech and Lincoln’s invocation of “the better angels of our nature,” Obama calls us to be our best and highest selves:

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America.

This speech gave me chills, made me weep, made my heart soar. But don’t take my word for it! Read the entire transcript here. Watch it again. And cherish it. This is one for the ages.

Adding: Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take — nearly as eloquent as the President himself, and always worth reading:

As for the next four years, there is time enough for that. But I stand by these words. And one felt something tectonic shift tonight. America crossed the Rubicon of every citizen’s access to healthcare, and re-elected a black president in a truly tough economic climate. The shift toward gay equality is now irreversible. The end of prohibition of marijuana is in sight. Women, in particular, moved this nation forward – pragmatically, provisionally, sensibly. They did so alongside the young whose dedication to voting was actually greater this time than in 2008, the Latino voters who have made the current GOP irrelevant, and African-Americans, who turned up in vast numbers, as in 2008, to put a period at the end of an important sentence.

That sentence will never now be unwritten. By anyone.


Also adding: Greg Sargent thinks, as I do, that this campaign wasn’t as petty or trivial as it sometimes seemed on the surface. Rather, it was a consequential battle of ideas about the very nature of American society:

1) What is the true nature of our collective responsibility towards one another?

2) What is the true legacy of the great progressive reforms of the 20th century? Should their core mission — and the safety net they have created — be preserved and expanded upon to meet the needs of those who are still being left behind by the private market? Or does that mission need to be readjusted to deal with dramatically different economic circumstances in the 21st century?

3) What is the best way to guarantee shared prosperity and economic security at a time of rapid economic change? Should we take collective action, via democratically elected leaders, to try to guarantee a good life to as many people as possible, and to defend those who are suffering economic harm at the hands of the free market? Or are we currently at risk of overreaching in that direction, doing people more harm than good?

There were many petty-seeming battles throughout this campaign, no doubt, but you can find these questions lurking just beneath their surface. The battles over so-called “gaffes” and controversial remarks on both sides often turned on deeper questions about the nature of the society we want to live in.

More here.

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“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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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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“Here we go and on we go”: Maira Kalman’s loopy optimism

Maira Kalman makes the case for optimism and expresses what I love most about her work:

The sense that people get from reading my work is that I don’t have antipathy to people. I really care about the people that I’m writing about. And I have a humanistic attitude and a kind of loopy optimism — because I’m acknowledging all the sadness and all the heartache and all the trouble, but I usually come out on the side of: Well, despite that, here we go and on we go, and things can also be fantastic at the same time as they are horrible.

Yes. We can’t choose the facts of the world, but we can choose how to respond to them.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings teases out more of the themes from the video, including the nature of identity and the meaning of life. My previous thoughts on Kalman here.

(via Brain Pickings; image via Kalman’s blog at The NY Times)

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