“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.

Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 1 — Stop Worrying

Over Water II by Chuck Olson
Over Water II by Chuck Olson

In the wake of the election, some of my friends are stuck down a Hell Well. They’ve used their worry and fear for America’s future to dig themselves into a dark pit of despair, some of them so deep that the only light they see comes from the demonic flames further down. I recognize it because I spent most of my life down a Hell Well.

Thanks to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, I passed decades in fear of one horrifying future or another, or the fear of their being no future at all. Only in the last six of my 42 years–a tiny 14% of my life–have I crawled out for any significant period of time. That was only after my life became so unbearable that I hit the emotional and psychological bottom of the Hell Well.

I’d dug myself down with my worry, and I’d stay down there for years because I’d been futilely trying to worry myself out. It doesn’t work. The tools you use to dig can’t be used to climb. I had to forge myself new ones. And while not everyone who’s dug themselves into a Hell Well has an anxiety disorder, we can all use the same tools to climb out.

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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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My Uncle Joe’s Garden – A Veterans Day Remembrance

Originally published November 11, 2011

Four Cut Sunflowers by Vincent Van GoghJoseph Papak was a carpenter, my great uncle, and the only natural-born gardener I ever met. A railroad track ran alongside the duplex he and my Aunt Sue shared with my dad’s family in Monongahela, Pa., and Uncle Joe claimed the strip of rocky soil across the track for his garden. Polio forced him to walk with a cane as long as I knew him, but he scaled the gravel rise along the tracks, “just threw seeds on the ground,” and raised everything without fail. Broccoli, strawberries, corn, massive sunflowers lighting the entrance to the driveway, all in the constant gray of southwestern Pennsylvania. He also took over every unused patch of ground around the house and yard, always growing something year round. Beautiful asparagus shot up randomly along the wooden fence, like they’d taken root in each of his footsteps. He was the first person I ever saw compost, when I was just a little kid. He’d dump table scraps into a perfectly dug hole in the garden, sides as smooth as a beer keg, and cover it with a garbage can lid.

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