The Optimism Paradox


It’s not easy to be optimistic.

Times are dark. The economy is rotten. Unemployment is still a problem across the country. Protesters’ rights are disappearing faster than free space on my hard drive. The sovereignty of nations is thinning. Confusing wars with amorphous battlefields and complex allegiances steep the planet in violence. Minorities across the globe are trod upon roughshod. The poor and homeless have it even worse. There’s a patch of plastic trash in the north Pacific twice the size of Hawaii, according to National Science Foundation reports.

Greed and power, the two-headed beast which looms over us all, casts a shadow thick as tar, ever present in every corner of the world.

But the sun came up this morning, and the moon will come up tonight. The same thing will probably happen tomorrow, too.

I’m an optimist, or at least I try to be. It’s not easy. My generation is entering the adult world at a dark time. We have a lot to worry about.

Still, unemployment has gone down by about 2 percentage points in the last three years. While the economy may never return to its size at the turn of the 21st century, it is improving. As bad as it is, it’s been worse, and it can always get better.

That’s hope — the idea that things can turn out well or get better. Optimism and hope, I think, are similar; I’d only change one word to define optimism. It’s the idea that things will turn out well or get better.

Despite these apparently dark times, I know things will get better. I just hope to be around to see them get better.

Maybe it’s just the fact that I was a small child, but I keep thinking that the 1990s were a more optimistic time. But looking at history, I don’t think the American spirit has felt as triumphant since the end of World War II. The evil empire we’d been fighting for 40 plus years in a global conflict had just dissolved. Our economy was trending upward. Hair metal was dead and gone. For the average American, life was pretty good.

Optimism is easy when the sun is shining. After all, who wants to think about rain when it’s so nice out?

Then the rain comes down, hard and cold. Now it’s a little harder to be an optimist, but it can’t rain all the time. The sun will come out.

But that’s when the flash flooding begins, when the arroyos burst their banks and the drainage ditch overflows and washes across California Street at speeds and depths that cause passing cars to swerve dangerously, dragging bikes away in the blink of an eye. This is when it’s hard to be an optimist. This is when it’s most important to be one.

Here’s where the storm analogy breaks down. With a lot of the big problems in life, we can do something. We can affect our circumstances.

There’s an oddity in culture I’ve noticed, though. Pervasive optimism is treated with suspicion and sarcasm. It’s regarded as bliss produced by ignorance and naivety. Hardly the case — ignorance can produce pessimism just as readily as optimism. One can be ignorant of opportunity as well as adversity. When one is well-informed, one can better and more decisively act to improve one’s situation.

Less hyperbolic pessimists are thought of as realistic or practical in many cases. Without aspirations toward greater things, pragmatism feels like the idea that things can’t get better — pessimism, thinly veiled, using the status quo as a fallacious good. I think the idiom is “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

But to dream, to aspire, this is scoffed at. Passion is treated as obsession, bliss as ignorance and hope as an impractical distraction. Without aspiring toward a better future, there is no point in optimism.

I’m reminded of a bit of dialog from a show called “The Boondocks.” Protagonist Huey Freeman is days into a hunger strike, which has just failed.

“Granddad,” he asks, “what do you do when you can’t do nothin’ but there’s nothin’ you can do?”

Granddad responds, “You do what you can.”

What else can you do?