Newsletter 28: On Optimism, and Whether It Has Value

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is one from November 2016, literally three days after the election. I was trying to find value in optimism. The world is, unsurprisingly, considerable worse since then, and trends are not pointing in the right direction … but I can’t tell if this plea for optimism still has value, or not. I think optimism should be a driving force rather than a passive one. You can’t just hope things will turn out OK; you have to fight for them to be so. Time for more fighting.

Like most of the people I know — many of which voted differently than I did last Tuesday and are just now realizing the ramifications of it — I’m still walking around in a stunned daze, four days later. I had to fly to New York on Wednesday morning, and I found it impossible to even look people in the eye. I simply cannot believe what we did last Tuesday.

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If you’ll forgive me, I am not quite up to speed and back on my game just yet, so if you are looking for some solace or wisdom in the wake of our country’s collective decision to hit itself in the face with a two-by-four — and I doubt you were looking for it here anyway — I’m afraid I am not yet consisting of the proper fortitude. There is no two ways about this: This is a disaster. We’re already seeing kids attacked at school in the name of Trump, and people bringing Confederate flags to Veterans Day parades in California, and Peter Thiel and that crazy-ass Milwaukee sheriff being central figures in the new administration, such as it is. This is going to get so much worse. I’m worried about my children, my family, my profession, our future. I keep looking for silver linings to this. I haven’t found one yet. (If you find one, seriously, I’m all ears.)

So I want to talk, briefly, about optimism.

I am an optimistic person. It might be the driving force, along with work, of my whole believe system. If you try not to give in to the darkness, you won’t. The thing that people don’t realize about optimism is that it is a choice. I know things might not work out. Hell, I know things probably aren’t going to work out. But what does the realization of that knowledge get me? If we are all on a journey to a certain destination, and we only have a certain amount of control over that destination, then what is the point of spending that whole journey fretting and preparing for the worst?

I do not accept that we are all doomed. But if we are all doomed, we have two choices for the ride. We can spend all that time girding ourselves for the pain that’s coming, or we can believe, against all odds, that it’s all going to work out. The advantage of the former is that, when/if the doom comes, you get to say, “Hey, I told you the doom was coming.” But I see no other advantage. This does not make the pain of doom any easier. You’re going through the same doom that everybody else is. Girding yourself just doesn’t help; it just makes you more miserable to be around. Meanwhile, while you were skulking around waiting for the world to end, the optimist was out there smiling like an idiot, thinking somehow this has a happy ending. This is a much more pleasant way to spend that journey. Does it make a difference whether you’re scowling when the guillotine lands or if you’re laughing? Not afterwards, no: You’re both just heads in a wicker basket. But it sure makes all the months before the blade falls more pleasant. And isn’t that all we can control? Pessimists think they’re making it easier on themselves by being prepared for the worse. But you’re never prepared for the worst. So why bother? Try to enjoy the time you have.

I have seen friends in the same daze as I have been over the last few days. But I have also seen people congratulating themselves, like they all saw this coming, like they knew humans were terrible and now have the vindication they were searching for. Not that this knowledge is helping them. Not that the self-regard has a reward. They’re in the same soup as the rest of us.

So I prefer to continue to look forward. Am I a little more jaundiced? Probably, but only temporarily. My eyes are more wide open for what we’re capable of, but, frankly, they should have been more wide open long before now. But I still believe people are good. We open the door for strangers. We help people in pain. We do not walk the streets feasting on the weak. If I broke my leg right now — while trying to execute a particularly difficult dependent clause or something — the world would be organized in a way where strangers would help me and fix me and make me well again. We are organized around goodness. We are not organized around perfection: We screw up, all the time, constantly, every second. We have institutional sins to deal with, from race to gender to ethnicity to a creeping lack of a sense of community: We are suspicious and scared and quick to judge and demonize. But we are inherently good. We want to be good. I refuse to believe otherwise.

One positive outcome of Tuesday has been the number of people looking for some sort of actionable to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, some way to make the world a little bit better, in any fashion they can. They’re volunteering. They’re protesting, to show that this is unacceptable, that this is not who we are. They’re going to schools and telling kids that they are welcome, that they belong. They’re just trying to be a little kinder to people than they might have otherwise. They’re getting more politically active. They’re doing more than just complaining on the Internet. They’re trying to reach out.

I’m trying to figure out how to do this myself. I’m not sure what’s next, or how’s it’s done, or what the best course of action is. I’ll get there, though: This has been a life-changing event for so many people, particularly those with young children who suddenly see an entirely different, far darker, meaner universe ahead for them. This is not something to be taken lightly, and I — and millions of others — will not do so. I’ll figure out what to do. But in the short term, I can continue to believe it’s going to be OK. I won’t just blindly hope: I’ll go out there and try to make as much change as I can. But I will believe it will work. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe we’re doomed anyway. But I’m sure as hell not going to sit around waiting for it to happen and pat myself on the back when it does. I believe it’s going to be all right. What good does it to do believe anything else?

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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