The Case for Optimism, Part 1 (posted 7/20/20)

We’re more than halfway through July, and there have already been a month’s worth of strong contenders for a vigorous Stupidest Statement of the Month competition.

One of the leaders in the clubhouse would have to be AOC’s response to a question about why the murder rates seem to be exploding in peaceful-riot-prone Dem-run cities.  The mediocre bartender’s answer – and I am not kidding — pointed to desperate people needing to shoplift bread for their hungry children.

Which would explain all of the frustration that the cops haven’t been able to follow the bread crumbs and solve all of those murders.  And also why crime scenes in Chicago and NYC have been littered with shell casings, crust, and bread ties.

Ugh.  If the polls are right –and I’m no more than 50/50 on that question – in 6 months this country may be led by Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and AOC.  Or as intelligent readers of the CO site know them, the mostly dead, the undead, and the brain dead.

Rather than dwell on that grim prospect, I’ve been reading some good books, enjoying time with my family and Wonder Dog, and returning to a theme that has been pre-occupying me for much of this challenging year.

If you’ll allow me to depart from my usual snark and mockery, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about optimism and pessimism.  In the interests of keeping this column from going on too long, I’ll share a few thoughts now, and the rest later in the week…

I’ve always been a mostly optimistic person.  I’m not sure how much of that is nature – many people are obviously wired to be either sunny-siders or Debby Downers – but I’m sure that nurture plays a significant role.  An optimistic, well-adjusted and functional family likely produces more optimistic kids than the reverse.

I also think that a religious worldview can shape how optimistic your thinking may be, and in both directions.  Though I briefly studied other religions a long time ago, I know a lot more about Christianity, and I’ve seen that there are darker versions (leaning toward a Calvinist, more sin-focused fatalism) and lighter ones.  The latter ones seem to me to be more attuned to Christ’s overall outlook, with a focus on a loving God creating us in His image, and a teleology that allows us to choose (literally) paradise.

For secular folks who adopt a central philosophy for their lives – hedonism would be my favorite, if I were in that boat, with utilitarianism a close second, and nihilism my least favorite – I’m sure those ideological lodestones shape how optimistic they become.  Because I believe that doctrinaire leftism is very often more religion than political philosophy  (What is the cancel culture craze if not a good, old-school heretic hunt?), I see it as tending hard toward pessimism, about which more later.

I think nations and cultures can also have default settings – shaped by their history, to be sure — to be more optimistic or pessimistic.   I think of Russians as a generally more pessimistic bunch, for example.  I remember coming across a list of common sayings from various cultures, and the purportedly Russian saying was, “The tears of strangers are only water.”  Which… yikes!  Many Russian sayings have a way of looking on the dark side, such as,“If you know too much, you’ll age sooner.”

I also think of Scandinavians in general as a more dour group – and without good cause, when you consider that they tend to be tall and attractive, and live in clean, well-functioning societies.  Yet they’ve got a high suicide rate, and even in church, my current Lutheran co-worshippers lean more toward a curt nod of greeting, rather than the emotional hugging and infectious smiles of my Baptist upbringing.

Jamaicans, on the other hand?  And many denizens of warmer, Caribbean or Mediterranean cultures?  Let’s just say that upon first hearing the songs, “Let’s Get Together and Feel all Right,” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” most of us would instinctively guess that they were not written by somebody named Luther, or Lothar, or Olaf.  (That first title, especially, is all Marley and no Scrooge.) (HA!)

Americans are a famously optimistic people, or at least used to be.  Most of our ancestors, it’s true, came here at least partly because of chaos and disasters – famine, conflict, poverty, roving bands of proto-leftists stealing everything in sight — in their home countries.

But most people, in those circumstances, were fatalists.  “I know that the potato crop is failing, and that we’re at war with the next dukedom over, and the smelly horde of proto-leftists struck again last week, stealing all my worldly possessions – my nightshirt and the chair, both!  But what are you gonna do?  Life is suffering.  Hopefully smallpox will reach our village soon, and bring the sweet release of death.”

But the latent Americans in the group said, “I’m going to the New World!  Sure, I’ll have to spend a few months on a small wooden boat crossing an enormous ocean that wants to kill me, eating a scurvy-licious diet of weevils and hard-tack, and then hopefully landing in neutral-at-best surroundings, with no infrastructure and terrible cell coverage.”

“If we can survive attacks from the scowling bands of hateful Warrens who are rumored to haunt the forests, we’ll still need to get through the deadly winters.  But we’ll pray to our benevolent God to send us some blessed global warming, and we’ll invent something called a hashtag, whatever that is.  And we’ll first deploy it against the confusingly white natives, who will be enraged and disheartened when they begin to see “#wemustneverstopmockingher” carved on many trees in their forests.”

Their slump-shouldered neighbors said, “You’re crazy.  What if you drown, or starve, or get eaten by a grizzly bear, if such a thing exists?”

But the latent Americans said, “What if we don’t? What if we work hard, and improve some firearms, and invent checks and balances and the McCormick Reaper and the Mustang – the airplane and the car, which will both be things, somehow – and real football and Farrah Fawcett?”


Just as with nations, it seems that an individual’s default setting can become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, shaping one’s fate.   The most well-known distillation of the dichotomy is the one about the glass of water that is either half full, or half empty.  The example points out the paradox of these positions: both views are technically correct, and yet ultimately speak to very different realities.

Another famous statement is that, “optimists are more often happy, but pessimists are more often right.” (That sounds like it could have been translated from the original Russian!)

I tend to agree with the first part, but the second part gives away too much: it’s obviously written by a pessimist.  Because the point of the glass of water is that neither of the alternatives is more “right” than the other.

Sometimes the most profound truths are so simple that we lose sight of them.  The water glass example makes a point that you can confirm by looking at your own life: each event or circumstance can accurately be seen as good luck, or bad.

It works as well with my life as with yours.

I was born to relatively poor parents, with no family history of higher education or financial success… but in the richest country in history, at a time when education was more open to common people that it had ever been before.

I chose a profession in academia that takes nearly a decade to complete, and then doesn’t pay very well… which taught me to be frugal, and guarded me against financial complacency.

The job prospects in my field deteriorated further as I was earning my degrees, which meant that I had to patch together a bunch of part time jobs into my mid-30s, and still earn less than my wife was earning… which drove me to look around until I found my first run-down house to buy and rehab and rent out.

Neither of us had jobs with pensions… which made us decide not to flip the houses I rehabbed, but to keep them as rentals.  By the time we retire, those rentals will be paid off, and will give us more income than a pension would have.

I also would never have experienced one of the deepest satisfactions of my working life: the balance between intellectual work and physical work.  Each type has its benefits that complement each other.  The physical work provides tactile feedback when it’s being done right, and tangible accomplishments: drywall hung, taped and mudded; a rotten section of floor replaced by new plywood; a room painted.

The intellectual work tends to produce nothing tangible, but metaphorically seeing a non-tangible lightbulb going on over a student’s head is pretty sweet.  And writing and polishing a column feels like working craftsmanship muscles that aren’t all that different from completing a rehab project.

Also, restoring a house could never help me make a connection with many kind readers all over the country, and no one ever walks into one of my houses and says, “Look at this drywall job!  You’re a hilarious genius!”

In part 2, I’ll argue that optimism is intertwined with conservatism, and pessimism with liberalism, and I’ll try to connect that polarization to the stark political divisions that threaten to tear our country apart.

One thought on “The Case for Optimism, Part 1 (posted 7/20/20)”

  1. Great piece Martin. I have looked at the half glass illustration thusly: It’s full, half water half air both of which are needed to sustain life. Keeps me sane? I think?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: