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Coming Late to Optimism


My friends might be too kind to say this in front of me, but I’m relatively sure that, behind my back, they see me as a cynic. This is, no doubt, the backlash result of having a mother who was so optimistic about humanity that she was still driving people to the polls to vote from George McGovern hours after he had conceded the election to Richard Nixon. It’s not that I consider humans to be intrinsically bad. It’s just that it is exhausting to think about how long it takes for any one person or organization—or God forbid, a nation—to change.

When I started writing this and thinking about these ideas, it was before Orlando. And it goes without saying that events like that are a big part of why it's hard for me to be hopeful about people. But, just as I felt when I first realized how much I want to be an optimist, if I don't believe deeply in the possibility of a better world, then bigotry, hate, fear, and violence win. In many ways, what happened in Orlando convinces me more than ever that I must simply know in my soul that human beings can be better than this.

Before I retired, I would sit for hours in academic meetings while we discussed ways to operate the college in a way that better met more people’s needs. Many of the solutions sounded wonderful. It’s just that they all required participants who were savvy, well-rounded, emotionally responsible, and unselfish. As I rolled my eyes in sync with the other cynics in the room, I just never imagined there were enough people capable of that kind of growth to make a real difference. Even when I was teaching, and my advanced composition students and I would engage in conversations about the best way to govern a nation, I was skeptical of their lovely, creative notions about our ability to do the right thing when we are called to do it.

As a person who has retired from roles that require those kinds of discussions, I know that it would be easy to move even further in that direction. Every time I utter the phrase, “They’re idiots,” even if it’s just in my head, I think it won’t be long before I’m shouting, “You kids get off my lawn” through a tiny crack in my door, behind which I’m stomping around in a flowered housecoat.

Part of me is afraid to feel too optimistic about my fellow humans because then I’ll feel terrible when they let me down, like in Orlando.

Still, just to prove how wrong I really am about most things, I realize that I have witnessed so many history-making events in the last few years that I can barely keep up. I avowed many times, for example, to those very same advanced comp students, that I was sure I would not see a woman as a serious candidate for president in my lifetime, and certainly not an African American. When I was a teenager and trying desperately and very unsuccessfully to hide the fact that I was gay, I would never have imagined that I would one day stand under a flower-covered plastic trellis in the County Recorder’s Office and be allowed to marry my same-sex partner. I wasn’t even sure that a certain 8th grader I know was going to find her way to the promotion ceremony this year. And yet, all of that has come to pass, despite my long-held conviction that human beings are simply too screwed up to ever come to their senses and make the right decisions. I’m beginning to think the problem may lie more with me than with the rest of the world.

I am starting to understand that human progress doesn’t look like I want it to look and that the road to good is much windier and more treacherous than I would choose it to be. Plus, I know that part of me is afraid to feel too optimistic about my fellow humans because then I’ll feel terrible when they let me down, like in Orlando. But it is not really that fun being the person who says, “That will never work” to every possible solution to a dilemma. And really, I’m the one who ends up suffering. All these other idealistic folks seem to be having a ball imagining that we might all rise to the occasion and improve the world.

Like so many other things I’m discovering now that a huge chunk of useless information and activity has been removed from my brain, I see now that you don’t really get to quit trying to be a better person when you get older. I probably should have started a long time ago practicing giving people the benefit of the doubt. I certainly had the role model in my mother, the die-hard humanitarian. But I’m figuring it’s not too late to change—to understand that a lot of us would like to see the world improve, to get it that I’m not the only one who wants to eliminate human suffering, and that I am not alone in my desire to give more people a voice. I’m thinking this is my time to be even more supportive of new ideas, more open and encouraging to things that seem hard, when all along I imagined I might be off the hook about having to muster up those traits when I got to this age.

When I awake on a late spring morning to the news of another massacre, a part of me wants to concede that the world is too far gone--we have let our abhorrence for things unlike us take the helm. But then I look at a child discovering puddles, watch my 88-year-old neighbor mowing his lawn in an effort to keep himself moving forward, and I know I have to look for the good in all of us--and believe with all my heart that it exists.

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