“Realism Equals Optimism”

If you’re unable or unwilling to accept the apparent cognitive dissonance of being both deeply concerned about the present and optimistic about the future, pay attention to David Rothkopf. David is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the CEO/Editor of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine. He recently tweeted sentiments like this:

Yet amidst that gloominess he also wrote an essay for Foreign Policy called “The Case for Optimism.” In a year that brought the election to the most powerful office in the world a man that Rothkopf calls an “idiot” and a “clown-villain” with a foreign policy team he labels “mind-bogglingly terrible,” Rothkopf’s essay begins, “The arc of history bends toward progress—and 2016 was no different.”

Rothkopf cites evidence showing a longterm and ongoing global spread of peace, health, education, and prosperity. He argues that the evidence of history shows that, despite the viciousness of our current (and yet-to-come) obstacles, the world will continue to improve, and improve faster:

Indeed, when you consider that living in one global community and in one single cultural ecosystem promises better understanding of one another, ubiquitous sensing, unlimited data storage, big-data analytics, and the ever-increasing capacity to connect the world’s best and most creative minds, the prospect of seeing the world in detail as it is and as it might be seems possible for the very first time. Optimism is not outlandish—it is required. Realism equals optimism.

We can be scared without being despondent. We can fight without anticipating defeat. And we can believe that things getting worse never precludes them getting better.

Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 2 – Start Hoping

Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965
Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965

In part one of this essay I described the Hell Well as the pit of despondency we dig ourselves into through worry. Since worry and despondency are seemingly undying, or at least perpetually renewable, we need a tool against them that’s just as strong. That tool is hope.

Hope springs eternal. Yeah, whatever, put it on a poster with a baby sloth and hang it in the church basement. Any of us with even the tiniest ember of cynicism still glowing from thousands of hours of listening to Pavement records want to scrape that lavender-scented pap to the toilet and flush twice. Which is why we need to get over ourselves and accept the fact that hope is eternal. The powerful conviction that things can always improve 1Not the frail delusion that things will always improve. will not die unless you let it. No facts can invalidate it; no reality can extinguish it. Hope’s immutability is what makes it such a ferocious weapon against despondency. “Hope is an ax,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, and it is–an indestructible ax. An adamantium skull cleaver hewing bloody stumps from despair.

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1. Not the frail delusion that things will always improve.

Sing Along For Power

I put together this playlist of some of my favorite sing-along songs. Most of them are anthems. Some could be called protest songs. A few of them are just bits of joy. But listening and shouting along to any of them is an act of power.

I experienced it this morning when, clawing my way out of despair, I put on my headphones and walked outside. Something made me search Spotify for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario?” In minutes I was walking faster, roaring along to “Rowr! Rowr! Like a dungeon dragon.” Then playing it again. “Here we go yo! Here we go yo!” Then before it could end finding “Sabotage,” shouting now, “I can’t stand it!” Then queuing new songs reflexively before I’d be left in silence. Racing, screaming the choruses, I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself until, four tracks in, surprising feelings overcame me: hope, strength, energy, determination, confidence. In another word: power.

So I made a playlist to share that power. Listening to music as a source of empowerment seems like a bromide, but it’s not. It’s an operative technique to change your mental state and thereby move you to constructive action.

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Fear = Fail

Fear = Fail
The only answer to fear is to be braver than the people you fear want you to be.

This is going to be a weird-ass analogy, so hang with me for a minute. In the days after the September 11 attacks, Major League Baseball went on a week-long hiatus. People debated whether the game should resume at all. Buck Showalter, current manager of the Baltimore Orioles and then analyst for ESPN, argued that it shouldn’t. He understood that cancelling the remainder of the season would send the message that the terrorists had brought us to our knees but, he said, “they kind of have.”

I was as scared after 9/11 as anyone, probably more, but hearing Showalter chirp that nonsense was the first time after the attacks that my fear changed into anger. This coward was telling me that because scary men could do mean things to America, we’d better get used to sacrificing our way of life because nothing would ever be the same again. Buck spoke up for al Qaeda and shared their lie that we were on our knees and we should stay down and stay afraid. His noxious wind blew the terror out of me and fanned a fire that, if I remember rightly, shot plasma from my eyes, melted the TV and burned down an entire Applebee’s.

I’ve thought of Buck’s “they kind of have” over and over since the election, because it’s what I’m hearing now from the mouths of my fellow progressives. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are filled with the fear that scary men could do mean things to America, and we’d better get used to sacrificing our way of life because nothing will ever be the same again.

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Pessimists are Boring. Here’s Why.

photo credit: stallio
photo credit: stallio

Believing that things will never improve takes no imagination: “I’ll keep losing money. I’ll keep getting fatter. I’ll never find anyone I love. People will continue to kill each other. The planet will keep getting warmer.” But believing things can improve requires thoughtfulness and creativity to envision reasons why and ways how they could get better. Unimaginative people are boring. Creative people are interesting.

Believing that things will never improve relieves yourself of the burden of trying to make them better. It takes no effort to deteriorate. But believing that things can improve necessitates the effort to make it happen: you have to work harder, overcome unpleasantness, challenge yourself. Lazy people are boring. Industrious people are interesting.

Believing that things will never improve murders ambition. If you presume your career is doomed, your love life is doomed, the world is doomed, then you have no reason to set goals, let alone try to achieve them. You give yourself a permanentexcuse to let your dreams whither. But believing that things can improve means believing that nothing prevent you from reaching your objectives other than yourself. Complacent people are boring. Ambitious people are interesting.

Believing that things will never improve makes you whiny, angry, and generally a turd to be around. Turdish people are boring. Pessimists are boring.

We Are Not Hopeless

Ellsworth Kelly, High Yellow, 1960
Ellsworth Kelly, High Yellow, 1960
This is a story I heard yesterday. It was told by a young guy at the cafe table next to mine, with a shaved head and rippling muscles, wearing a tank top, cargo shorts, and dog tags. Earlier that morning, he explained, he had been sitting by himself outside when a stranger approached him.

“I think I’m going to kill myself,” the man said.

“Excuse me?”

“I think I’m going to kill myself.”

The young guy looked him over. He believed the man. “Okay,” he said. “Sit down and talk to me.”

The stranger wouldn’t sit down, but he didn’t leave. “Why do you want to kill yourself?” the young guy asked. The man told him he’d had enough. He said he planned to shoot himself. He didn’t know what else to do.

“I’d like to help you. Can I help you?”

The stranger shrugged.

“Can I call the police to come help you? I’ll stay here with you until they get here.” The man nodded.

“Are you carrying a weapon?” He nodded again. “Okay, look — we don’t want there to be any trouble when the cops come. So can I take your weapon away from you?”

Another nod. The young guy stood and gently patted the man down. He found a pistol in his clothes, which he removed. He ejected the clip, unloaded it, and set the disassembled gun down next to them. Then he called the police.

When the cops arrived, they talked to the stranger and asked if he wanted to come with them. He said that he did. So they led him to the car, taking the young guy’s phone number before they left. They called him that afternoon to tell him the stranger’s name and that he was getting the help he needed.

We look at the hate and death in the news today, and it’s hard not to despair, but we are not doomed. We feel helpless, but none of our actions are futile. We change the world the most by intently being as good as we can, by approaching every decision with the aim of being kind.

“I guess I did a good thing today,” the young guy said without pride or drama. We are not hopeless.