I am confident that, in the end, common sense and justice will prevail. I’m an optimist, brought up on the belief that if you wait to the end of the story, you get to see the good people live happily ever after.
I have been trying to write this essay for weeks. It started out as a hopeful end of the year review. Then I was going to write about how 2016 felt like a sucker punch year, starting with such promise then dishing an unexpected uppercut: With the surprising–and troubling–election, the deaths of beloved musicians like David Bowie and Prince among other celebrities, and a seemingly chaotic world with shootings live on Facebook.
With so many sad and tragic things, how could anyone be hopeful for a better 2017?
The year swirled in my head like a stew that I had to stir into focus and serve. But December turned into New Year’s Eve and then suddenly we were into the new year.
The guy from Liberty Mutual saved me.
While working distractedly on the phone through some minor issue with my homeowners insurance, the customer service rep asked me how I was and what my family and I had done for New Year’s. His question didn’t feel intrusive. His sentiment felt genuine. In fact, he was so graceful and articulate I nearly missed it. But something stopped me and I asked him to repeat because, well, I’m not used to such warm authenticity from customer service. Or maybe I’m so cynical and desensitized to customer service people on the other end of the line that I routinely disengage.
In a brief moment this man whom I never met and likely never will hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts reached beyond my expectations for our conversation and asked from his heart how I was.
I said I was grateful and that New Year’s Eve was both a celebration of all that my family, friends and I have enjoyed this year and an anxious conversation about the drastically changed political and cultural landscape.
“I get what you’re saying, my friend,” he said. “I’m with you.”
I carried this with me for a few days, basking in appreciation for the warmth of a complete stranger’s humanity and reflecting on what it meant when I had another eye-opening experience.
My daughter Claire coaxed me into doing Vinyasa Hot Yoga at an Ann Arbor studio for the first time a few days after the start of the year. I’ve done yoga four or five times in my life. It’s a running joke between Elin and I that my body, permanently tied in unyielding knots because of all my years of running, could use lots of yoga. I often start sentences with “I should do a little yoga,” just to get laughs from her.
A few minutes into the class the petite, raven-haired instructor confessed a close friend had died over the weekend and she was feeling the weight of her grief.
“I didn’t know if I could come here today to teach,” she told us between my awkward downward dog and something I think is called a half-moon. “But I decided just to be authentic and come as I was, prepared or not.”
She went on to express that she felt it was important to be who she was in the moment grief and all and believe it would all work out. And it did. Beautifully. There wasn’t a person in that hot room not touched by her vulnerability. I know It made me less self conscious of my poor form. I even felt some of her grief flow into me. I just…was.
It’s a lot like the way I feel about 2017. We could worry about how bad things are until our stomachs roil. We could worry that we are inadequate to handle the challenges ahead. Or we can just go as we are with all the insights, courage, intelligence, humor and compassion we have. And just live.
We could worry about how bad things are until our stomachs roil…Or we can just go as we are with all the insights, courage, intelligence, humor and compassion we have. And just live.
At the aforementioned New Year’s Eve gathering of friends it became apparent how this year’s many tough events have taken their toll on our collective psyches. While most of the talk was about the momentous Presidential election of 2016, we also lamented loss of beloved musicians, actors, journalists and others–Professor Snape Alan Rickman, Reporter Gwen Ifil, for example–as well as the heartbreaking shooting at an Orlando nightclub.
Never have I seen so many among my circle so filled with dread. It’s the kind that even insinuates itself into our morning coffee. Just before Christmas, LA Times political cartoonist David Horsey wrote, “I have never seen anything quite like the grief being felt by the majority of American voters who did not vote for Donald Trump.”
In an editorial a few days after Christmas, the New York Times wrote: “Looking back on the last 12 months, those who feel miserable and afraid have plenty of justification. For many it was the election of a president unfit for the job. He seems to want to run the country like some authoritarian game-show host, but we don’t really know what he’ll do, and uncertainty worsens the sickening feeling.”
Never have I and my circle so feared that an incoming president will dismantle life as we know it.
The worry runs deeper than concern that Trump will cause us some inconvenience because of a policy switch or two. Never have I and my circle so feared that an incoming president will dismantle life as we know it, including our sense of how a society takes care of its people, even possibly bring the country into an uncontrollable world war.
It’s made me dwell on the difference between optimists and pessimists. How are they different?
Winston Churchill said “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” There is more to optimism, I suspect, than singing the sun will come out tomorrow or putting a smile on one’s face as catastrophe unfolds. There is a fundamental difference in the way the optimistic person views failure, success and things in between. Pessimists see setbacks as global statements on their character as well as a world beyond their control. Optimists look at each experience individually and rarely see their failures as any reflection of who they are.
There is more to optimism, I suspect, than singing the sun will come out tomorrow or putting a smile on one’s face as catastrophe unfolds.
Optimists have an essential resilience, I believe, to roll with whatever life throws at them and remain steadfastly unchanged in their overall positivity. It is a quality that makes them shy away from ruminating about stuff they can’t control. They also don’t have their heads in the ether, but remain grounded as they focus on what their choices are based on reality.
It makes me think that we need optimism now more than ever. We need to drag the pessimists out of their brooding; we need to help them realize the doomsday scenario they see is fear and not foregone reality. It might seem like we are running up Pike’s Peak in a foot of snow in expensive Italian loafers, but are things really that bad?
The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.–William Arthur Ward
I find myself lately focusing only on what is on my daily plate–work, family and stuff around the house. If I spend too much time thinking about the potential massive shift I fear, I might lose it all. And I’m good at going down the shitter.
I don’t know whether optimism and pessimism are genetically non-modifiable states or one can learn to become an optimist if they are afraid to leave the sancturary of their home and one-sided news channels. Are we locked into a dreaded world view or are individuals capable of reprogramming to be positive if that’s the way we wish to be?