Rethinking optimism: Why I was wrong last school year

Illustration courtesy of Gabbie Evans

NATE LEMEN | OPINION COLUMNIST | nlemen@butler.edu

In the fall of 2017, I wrote a column in which I made the straightforward and, by my estimation at the time, necessary argument that there were ways you can maintain a positive outlook even in the face of the onslaught of negative news that attacks us on a daily basis.

It has come to my attention that I was wrong.

This realization has not hit me overnight, but instead has been crafted with a painful and acute brutality over the past year and a half by an ever-increasing onslaught of despair-filled news stories and headlines — a wave beating ceaselessly against the levy of positivity I attempted, and encouraged others to attempt, to put up.

In my previous story, I wrote: “It really has seemed, with an increasing and alarming frequency, that the world might be ending. But I personally do not feel as though the way I live my life has drastically changed, and from what I have observed, other people are in the same boat.”

This quotation, in its second half, holds an important key in understanding my shift in thinking. It’s hard to argue that things were good in 2017, and I don’t mean to take a revisionist view back on this and attempt to refute my fundamental argument. But to act as though my life — as though many people’s lives — hasn’t been affected by the sea of turpitude that surrounds us is equally foolish, and even a little dangerous.

Fundamentally, there aren’t a lot of reasons to be optimistic these days. To be honest, I’m not sure there were back then, either, but I was more easily convinced. I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt because I was scared to accept that nestled snugly within every headline that touted a heartwarming tale of a community coming together, or of a dog saving a rabbit from drowning, was the implicit promise that this piece of good news — no matter how positive it was — was fleeting, that the pervasive negativity of our day to day lives was, like a hound on the scent of blood, not far behind.

And being scared of and therefore denying the presence of a problem does not mean it is actually nonexistent.

As a fun exercise, let’s run through a few highlights from last year’s never-ending news cycle:

From the New York Times: “Warming in Arctic Raises Fears of a ‘Rapid Unraveling’ of the Region.” From National Public Radio: “Sexual Assault Of Detained Migrant Children Reported In The Thousands Since 2015.”  From The Guardian: “Richest 1% on target to own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030.” From the  New York Times: “14 Children Died in the Parkland Shooting. Nearly 1,200 Have Died From Guns Since.” From Fortune.com: “Biggest Rollback of Bank Rules Since Dodd-Frank Clears House.”

Each and every one of these headlines contains a news story that holds a deep and immediate impact on our day to day lives. These aren’t far-off issues for the future versions of ourselves to deal with, but instead are precipitous problems that not only have the capacity to shift the entire course of our lives but which really do impact us.

All of which brings us to two crucial and unavoidable questions: why does it matter that I was wrong? And, hell, what are the implications of my previous error?

I’m really not sure there is a clear answer to this. I think a lot of people would argue that there is a huge merit to optimism, that to be hopeful is to influence positive change on the world. That’s not inherently wrong. But what made me return to this topic — outside a general lack of other story ideas — is what is missed by the incessant clinging to positivity.

I wrote my piece last year, in large part, to make myself feel better; I thought that if I could come up with reasons to see the good, more good would manifest. We’re a year and a half past that, and I can say with a fair amount of confidence that good hasn’t manifested itself anymore than it did then. By refusing to accept the fundamental idea that things are bad — and, perhaps more importantly, that they aren’t getting better anytime soon — I was refusing to address the institutional problems that face America.

To be fair, there was never a real possibility that I would admit that I was wrong without also offering a caveat to that admission. The world does truly suck, and things do seem to be irredeemably bad. That doesn’t mean that the ideas I outlined in my last piece — which, ultimately, boiled down to being an active citizen through the volunteering of time and resources to causes about which you care — are wrong or should be ignored.

But there is nothing that ties being an active citizen with being an optimistic one. By insisting on unabashed positivity, I inadvertently implied that if one was unable to find solace in optimism, they were wrong. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but our current world is a deeply hellish landscape, and it has to be OK to not be optimistic sometimes.

To expect that donating clothes to hurricane victims will automatically help make the world seem better is such a product of third-wave capitalism that it gives me a headache to even attempt to wrap my mind around it.

At our world’s humanist core, there is a deep, inconsolable sadness, a sadness fueled by the suffering of those around us and by the inability of individuals to fix the institutional power structures that perpetuate that suffering. I do not think this sadness has always existed, but it surrounds us now.

I think it is now our responsibility to cope with this sadness, and I’m not sure there is a way to do this wherein it is dealt with all the time. Fundamentally, we have to come to terms with the idea that there are times in which the only thing we can do is let the negativity envelop us and work to do whatever good we can. That is not quitting; that is preventing burnout and further despair.

I don’t know if, in the long run, positivity will win out. What I do know is that trying to shoehorn optimism into everyday life won’t make it magically appear. There is undeniably good out there; and while it is not nearly prevalent enough, it is worth fighting for.

 

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