“The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
I have fought over the years with optimism. I suppose one could say that I grew up with confused optimism, the mixed messages being beat over my head as if with a baseball bat. The messages came from everywhere–family, school, church, and society, in general. And I know I am not alone in having received them.
“Life is hard,” so ” Work hard,” but “You don’t appreciate what I have given you.” These were the words of the critical parent so many of us grew up with in the 1960s.
“This is my lot in life,” so “Don’t complain,” but “Be happy for what you have.” These were the words whispered to us from the silent martyrs (often times, women) who did not know how to see beyond their plight.
“Get good grades,” so “You will go far,” but (if you don’t understand the concepts and material and get bad grades) “You’re not paying attention and working hard enough; stop talking and start listening.” These words were the constant reminder from an educational system, which had not considered a theory of multiple intelligences.
“God loves you,” but “You are not deserving (as a sinner),” and “You have two choices: Heaven or hell.” Either way, these words delivered guilt, shame, and ultimatum.
These are just a sampling of the countless messages each of us may have heard coming from well-meaning family, clergy, and educators. Follow these up with the convoluted messages received through life from coworkers and bosses, loved ones, professionals, politicians, and the voices that we have taken on which live in our own heads…
It’s no wonder that many of us struggle with making sense of this world, seeing the value and goodness in what we live along the way!
Optimism as the counter-culture
I remember a distinct shift in the world view of life with literally hundreds of self-help books and “motivational” speakers purporting the power of positive thinking.
I believe that there is truth in principle to positive thinking.
But…there certainly seemed to be a lot more yellow-smiley-face masks being worn on the faces of zombie-esque followers as they danced and sang their way through life’s problems to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” played by the pied pipers of the “think-happy-thoughts-and-all-will-be-well” movement, which I suggested in “Reality…And the Yellow Smiley Face.”
I do not see this view to be any different or less confusing as the other mixed messages we heard 50 years ago. Once again, the message is “If you do (what we tell you), then you will (receive a particular result),” which translates in this case to, “If you are still struggling (or have bad things happen to you), then you are not thinking positively enough.”
My thoughts on the subject
I have had (what I sometimes view as) “more than my fair share” of challenges, believe me. There are certainly times when I scream out, “Again? Why me?” I know what it is like to wallow in my misery.
And, yes. There was also a time when I mimicked the Pollyanna-rhetoric of one sect of the positive thinking cultural movement.
Optimism is not something that we can necessarily do that will control the outcome of events. Instead, optimism is how we view life and what it offers us.
I believe optimism is a refusal to stay stuck in the muck and mire that life can daily dish out.
It is opening one’s eyes to discovery. Seeing possibilities that exist. Finding lessons to learn. Thinking beyond what slaps us in the face.
Life is what it is.
We are born into this world and each of us are given challenges we must face. None of us are exempt from that fact.
Where we differ is in how we view that world. And although we are each influenced by our unique set of circumstances and experiences, we do have a choice. A choice in whether (or not) we will challenge that view–the view that was doled out on us earlier in life by others and later on by our own unwillingness (perhaps) to look at life from a different perspective.
The late poet and author Charles Bukoski, has helped me to define optimism in his poem, The Laughing Heart:
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
I choose optimism.