Optimism in Troubled Times

Can We Have Good Outcomes If We Fail to Imagine They Are Possible?

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I was outside pruning the branches of the tangled, woody honeysuckle, whose bright-orange flowers draw hummingbirds, and planting new treasures from the nursery in the sandy, rocky dirt near the house, patting the ground hopefully. The sky had begun its procession from pastel periwinkle into blue dazzle, a wren performed its little cascade of notes, and I felt pretty good. Not so far away, fires were raging, viral variants were spreading, and in so many ways, we seemed to be on the cusp of doom. 

Jack Gilbert summed it up nicely in his “Brief for the Defense”:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

I am enjoying my life, in delicate coexistence with ominous truths and tragedy. I even believe that things will get better. I hold hope in my heart, tenaciously, and I suppose it’s a kind of luxury, maybe a manifestation of privilege, possibly self-delusion … but I cling to it. And if it’s illusory, I will do whatever I can to render its premise valid.

My late friend Mark Haunfelner wrote about hope in a beautiful essay that was published in the Los Angeles Times in 1987. He was 32 years old then (how strange to imagine that he would now be in his sixties) and living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He was a conscientious and involved young citizen, active in political and humanitarian causes, and just as he chose to imagine that he might be cured, despite dire verdicts to the contrary, he also chose to have faith that our planet might someday be healed. 

“If I chose resignation,” he wrote, “I know it would be impossible to live whatever time remained to me in a meaningful and worthwhile way.” 

He decided to live and act “as if” an opportunity existed for healing and health, on a personal and collective level. He channeled this resolve into a plea:

And so I appeal to you my fellow citizens ― I appeal to you with whom I have so proudly shared in the life-affirming work of free people. Know that the hour grows late and that the life of the human race hangs in the balance. I appeal to you because I cannot control the course of the cancer that threatens my life, but I know as never before that life is better than death, and that we must not squander the miraculous gift of life existing on this planet.

I hear Mark’s plea, even now, and I accept the challenge. My life is small, my rickety little platform virtually unseen, my influence insignificant, and yet I know that there is a snowball effect in cumulative individual deeds, that light shines when truth is spoken, and new channels for change open up when we refuse to acquiesce to despair.

It’s tough being human, even for a woman who lives in a land of enchantment and whose primary tasks today consist of puttering with plants, packaging macadamia nuts from our orchard, making pesto, and preparing a Zoom presentation for earnest teacher-writers like herself. 


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To be honest, I have a lot of anxiety. But I’ve discovered that the anxiety is useless. In fact, it’s worse than useless. It depletes me. It siphons energy that might have been used doing something constructive or kind or beautifying. I feel the same way about sorrow and regret, and although God knows I haul a lot of it around, I’ve mastered the trick of keeping it at bay most of the time. 

“We must risk delight,” Jack Gilbert said. 

I’m big on delight. 

He also said:

We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world.

Yes, it takes a kind of stubbornness. Defiance. A willingness to hear music, and savor the shifting light, and breathe in a sense of gratitude that you are, for the moment, safe. It isn’t selfish to acknowledge that much is beyond your control, and none of it is made better by your weeping. 

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship

anchored late at night in the tiny port

looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront

is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat

comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth

all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Can we have good outcomes if we fail to imagine they are possible? Despair is a gate drawn shut and locked, a denial before a step is taken, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Doesn’t optimism fuel activism? 

And isn’t joy a kind of rebellion? I just came inside with mud on my shoes and dirt beneath my fingernails, and my husband handed me a slice of buttered toast, and a tiny hummingbird flashed its magenta throat as it hovered about those honeysuckle flowers, and I would be most ungracious if I didn’t accept and say thank you.


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