Saturday, December 31, 2011

Have A Fine Year
































When my daughter was little and frightening news of the world got to her, I would try to put things in perspective, "Most people, most of the time are having a fine day." That this has been true throughout all of history, even when great tragedy is unfolding in one part of it (and indeed when is it not?) I have no doubt.

Maybe it's not a great day, although someone is also always having one of those as well, but a fine one, because most things involving humans are like that -- a little high a little low, a little hot a little cold, a little smooth a little rough. Both the optimists and the pessimists are right: it could always get better and it could always get worse. 

I suspect that most of us are pro-optimism, even if we're pessimistic by nature. It's hard not to be when you're working with young children, who themselves are generally having fine days, but by virtue of the metaphor of their youth shine for us like a light into the certainty of a better future. And even if we can't help but regret in advance the equal assurance that they will suffer, it just seems that optimism is the proper stance when it comes to the young so we pull ourselves together and say, "It will heal," "The lights will come back on," "The worst is behind us."


On the long night of the Winter Solstice, as I hugged people at the door, I tried this out on the grown-ups, saying things like, "This is as dark as it gets, now we can look forward to more light," or "It all gets better from here!" Most thanked me, accepting my invitation to look forward with hope, but many drew back in mock defensiveness, bubbling back, "I love the dark! I love the long night!" denying my assertion that there could be anything wrong. I understand that they were looking into the dark with the certainty of their optimism, wearing it like a shield against doubt.

Hope and fear are the two sides of this coin and both are legal currency in the marketplace of the future. There are those that claim that we create reality through our attitude, that if we anticipate success we make it more certain, while the same goes for failure. And I expect there is some truth to that, although probably a lot less than the pop philosophies would lead us to believe. In her book Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, inspired by her struggle with breast cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich, calls this faith in the determinism of attitude "the new Calvinism," seeing a world in which we are all ultimately and personally responsible for the evils that befall us, be it cancer or unemployment, casting every set-back as a personal failure, having nothing to do with the pernicious randomness of disease or outgoing tide of economic recession.

Optimism is a magnificent thing, I hardly think I'd want to go on living without it. Living hopefully does not call for optimism of the blind variety, but rather the eyes-wide-open knowledge that this sure as hell can work given what I know to be true about the world and myself. Optimism backed up by thoughtfulness, experience, and confidence is always justified, but when worn merely as a prophylactic against fear, it sets us at the roulette wheel feverishly spinning away, doomed to go bust no matter what our attitude.

Pessimism gets a bad rap and I understand that. Relentlessly pessimistic people are hard to be around unless they're able to temper it with a cynic's humor, and even that wears thin after awhile. But that doesn't mean that the fear at the heart of the pessimist isn't justified. It could always go wrong. The future is full of pitfalls: we count on our wary pessimists to point them out. Whose investment advice would you be more likely to take: the optimist or the pessimist? The pessimist's, of course, after all if he's willing to place a bet on the future, you can be darned sure he's done his homework and is not relying on the vagaries of a "good vibe."

Young children don't think in terms of optimism and pessimism, especially the very young for whom the future really doesn't exist, let alone with enough concreteness to evoke hope or fear. And sure, as they get older they quite reasonably adopt the cloak most appropriate for the occasion; dressing for instance in eager anticipation of the holidays or in fearful anticipation of the doctor's needles. Rational responses both, ones that belie the reality that the presents are rarely as incredible as one hopes nor the pain as bad as one fears: our attitude, be it hope or fear, not altering reality, but rather helping to temper our experience with reality in a way to prevent the highs from being too high and the lows from being too low.

I'm thinking of all this today on the last day of 2011 because as I reflect back on this year in which I sold my home of 13 years and moved into a new one, in which our school moved precipitously into a new building, in which my child entered high school, and in which the world seems to be finally and angrily awakening to the realization that it's time for big economic, political, and social changes, I can't help but think of the "curse" that is usually attributed to the ancient Chinese: "May you live in interesting times."

And indeed, I have been cursed; we have been cursed. The brilliance of this curse, of course, is that it can just as easily be a blessing, because really, who would want to live in boring times? And indeed, I have been blessed; we have been blessed.


I'm going to try this year, as a resolution, to approach the future more like a child, setting aside the dogmatism of optimism and pessimism. I will let my feelings flourish, learn what I can from them, then wearing them on my sleeve, I'll seize the day while worrying about tomorrow when it comes.

When I succeed, I will credit those who hugged me when it was dark. When I fail, I will shrug and not heap all the blame on myself, knowing that I have no control over the weather.

There is a companion curse that goes along with the famous one. It's one we habitually evoke for one another this time of year as a blessing, so take it as you will: "May your wishes be granted."

And in the meantime, however, have a fine year.


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2 comments:

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Tom.
Really it speaks to me today.
A good post for the conclusion of an interesting year.
Cheers!
Brenda

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Thank you Tom for an important and thoughtful new Years post. When I think of making it through the pain of life (that all of us endure and experience at one time or another), it is not so much the optimism that holds me up (and yes, I'm an optimist too), but the gratitude for the little things along the way. I hear that in this post. Happy New Year!

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