On Finding Optimism


(Dec 31: Here’s to an optimistic New Year, and that as individuals and societies we can learn from, and possibly even get the chance to rectify, our mistakes).

Some days, it’s harder to find optimism than others. But it’s always there. “In any event, it is the only way we can live.” 

From Bobby Kennedy:

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember—even if only for a time—that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek—as we do—nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn at least to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again. The answer is to rely on youth—not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.

It is a revolutionary world we live in, and this generation at home and around the world has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived. Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills. Yet many of the world’s great movements of thought and action have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation; a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth; a young woman reclaimed the territory of France; and it was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World; and the 32 year-old Thomas Jefferson who reclaimed that “all men are created equal.”

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation, those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged, and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that event.

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that—even arrogance—but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.”

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11 thoughts on “On Finding Optimism

  1. Optimism vs pessimism. It’s an old subject, but we have yet to know why two people in the same circumstances can feel quite differently — one optimistic, one pessimistic. We have also to learn why any one person can one day feels optimistic, the next pessimistic. There are no easy answers and ‘how to think positively’ books and speeches probably result in as much pessimism as optimism.

    Optimism is logically the preferred state of mind since it seems to go along with happiness. But pessimism can sometimes motivate us to change situations that need changing.

    I read the piece by Bobby Kennedy as any politician giving a speech. Nobody votes for a pessimist. And it is true that both optimism and pessimism are contagious — so might as well be optimistic.

    But I did not like the reference to a young monk changing the world — that is not the role of monks (or jihadists).
    I did not like a young general extending Macedonia — how many did he kill or subjugate in the extension? And I did not like a young woman ‘reclaiming’ France — France and England have moved back and forth in each others territory for many centuries, a piece of soil does not belong to one nation. And what happened to the young woman? can’t see any cause for optimism. Did a young Italian explorer discover the new world? I thought he sailed around the Caribbean lost for six years and never got nearer to ‘America’ than Cuba. I suppose it was a ‘new’ world to Europeans, and what did they do when they knew it was there?

    Young people disturbing our peace in the pursuit of ideals can be a pain. It might also be noted that a disproportionate number of suicides are of young people. This is particularly true in the ‘laid-back’ country you like so much, Patrick: Laos is among the top ten countries in the world in terms of suicide. (Any other context it’s among the bottom 200.)

    Peace is an infinitely superior ideal than territorial conquest. It just doesn’t pull in the votes.

    • Hi Robert,

      I agree with you about the examples he gave. I don’t like the celebration of conquest, or military expansion, or colonization. And the one example that you let off the hook, Jefferson, may be famous for his writings, but he was just as famous for being a slave-owner despite his claim that all men were created equal. There is definitely room for cynicism about all of these, and perhaps for almost any example.

      Context is important, I think. The video is actually his brother Ted speaking at his funeral, reading one of Bobby’s previous speeches given in South Africa in 1966. I confess that the fact that this was given in a eulogy speaks even more to me, thinking of what it’s like to lose a brother. There is emotion in Ted’s voice, particularly toward the end.

      But I’d like to think that there was genuine idealism in the speech, in the struggle against apartheid, which is what brought him to South Africa in the first place. My biases are showing.

  2. It never fails to fascinate me how two different people can read a situation in a completely different way, whether that be positive or negative. I recently viewed a documentary which explored the idea if you can change your regular disposition from pessimistic to optimistic, some incredibly interesting findings. Take a look on the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b036ypxw/Horizon_20122013_The_Truth_About_Personality/

    Its a really good watch. Although given you are in Boston I am unsure whether you can view this. It is part of the BBC horizon series and is called “The Truth about Personality” if you would like to look it up.

    Interesting and fascinating blog Patrick, I shall be checking in regularly. I always think I probably should’ve been an anthropologist of some sort given my fascination with human behaviour.

  3. As a sort of Englishman (there are as many as there are Americans — result of colonisation) I might have looked at the video — but with my connection in Laos, I can’t do that stuff. Probably just as well, since I get the words without the emotion. And right Patrick, you always get us thinking — and without being provocative. Your students are lucky!

  4. Nothing wrong with appropriate optimism. Appropriate is the key word. What is possible. What is reasonably within our means. Don’t shoot at the moon when you have just one rocket in a bottle in your back garden. And practice what you preach. Me, my new year’s resolution is to complete a full walking tour of my bedroom.

      • Hope for the moon Patrick, if that’s what you want. But where would you put it? And since nobody yet owns it, you have it already. And it will still be there when you can’t see it. Happy New Year and enjoy that child.

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