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How to Be Optimistic

If I have an inclination, it’s toward pessimism. In my early, unconscious efforts to protect myself from disappointment, I learned to expect little. That approach, of course, heightened the loveliness of all the things that turned out amazingly well, so it paid off. But I still held fast to anticipating the worst. The last few years of horrific politics have only reinforced this idea that looms in my brain: I’m not sure I can trust society to help steer our boat in the right direction. We elect crazy people to major public offices, racism and sexism seem more prominent than ever, and states pass laws that take their citizens back to much darker times. All of this makes it extra hard for a cynic like me to believe that we can survive, much less thrive.

In the actions of those who are committed to change, there is a world of optimism for all of us.

Fortunately, I occasionally remember to narrow my focus and look more closely at the miracles of individual humans. Even in the bigger picture, horrific news is often followed these days by reports of grassroots efforts exploding to help repair the damage. The world is actually full of people who are making a huge difference. In my work, I am lucky to see teachers who understand that all of their students are not the same. They realize that in order to really engage their classes, they need to get to know them, ask them questions, figure out what makes them tick. They give these students what they need to become committed citizens themselves.

The parents I know—most of whom also work full-time jobs—spend interminable hours helping their kids navigate a scary world that doesn’t look like it did when we were young. They stay up late to assist with homework or just to listen to the story of that kid’s day. They encourage bravery and grace when they know that public school classrooms feel tenuous at best, and they support their children with an unconditional love that many of us didn’t experience from our own parents.

Recently, my college’s student newspaper was filled with feature stories highlighting people on campus who are making a difference—a math teacher, a counselor, a DACA student, and many other staff, faculty, and students who contribute daily to making things better. They are all at this campus—like their counterparts at colleges everywhere—because they are determined to change the world in some way. It’s hard for me, even in my most pessimistic moments, to not be moved to optimism by people like this.

The same is true when I look at art. When I listen to the poetry of a Joni Mitchell song, or look at the truth and intricacies of a Faith Ringgold quilt, or swim in the vulnerability of Anne Lamott essays, I believe we are going to be all right. And that’s the point of all of this, I think. We have to look at each other, listen to those of us who are connecting, making changes, putting our feet down and refusing to move in a bad direction.

I realize that so much of my glumness about the world comes from where I set my eyes. And this doesn’t mean that if I ignore the bad it will disappear. It’s really the contrary. If I make a point of seeking out people who are bravely making change, part of what it does is help dissipate my own apathy. When I talk to someone who is deeply engaged in telling the truth and changing the way we look at things, it’s hard to think the world is falling apart.

And when I do think of that, it helps me to understand my own reluctance. I sometimes go to the worst possible outcome because it makes me feel better to get there first rather than be clobbered over the head by it. Imagining the slow, uphill battle to get the best possible result can be discouraging and exhausting. But there is energy in watching my friends and colleagues stand strong and tall in the face of injustice. There is inspiration in courageous words and actions and behaviors.

It’s the easy way out, in a way, to figure we’re all stuck in the mud of despair and injustice. But in the actions of those who are committed to change, there is a world of optimism for all of us.

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