Optimism is a dirty word. It carries with it connotations of youth and naivete, of blissful ignorance. The lips that form it in speech or the fingers that write it typically belong to a bubbly 20-something; the kind of person who hasn’t experienced enough pain to have their belief destroyed – the honest belief that there is nothing but good in the world and all problems are those solely of perspective. Or perhaps, if not blissful ignorance, then deliberate escapism, where optimism means a forced detour from realism in favor of subjecting oneself only to the joy around us. Ignorance and escapism, however, can never match the satisfaction of a deep acceptance of reality and the confidence that comes from looking the true world in its eyes without fear.
I speak of an alternative optimism where suffering and ecstasy are equally acknowledged, where the depth of life is wholly accepted. An optimism where we do not contradict our perception and lie to ourselves, where we do not shield our inner child from horror and trauma. I propose an enlightened optimism, one where we shift not our awareness but our attention and focus it on the best elements of our experience. When the enlightened optimist is faced with a challenge, she recognizes the possibility of failure but chooses to expect success and thereby sets the gears in motion to achieve it. When the enlightened optimist meets someone new, they are fully aware that they may despise every bone in this stranger’s body, but they expect to love them and so focus on the qualities they do admire and consequently make it pretty damn difficult to make enemies. The enlightened optimist possesses the beautiful virtue of a selective memory; they remember fully well the tragedies and hardships befallen them, but elect to spend their bar nights recounting their greatest triumphs and their heartiest laughs over a beer they can’t stand but have already forgotten about.
The person I describe is not a superhero, nor a celebrity airbrushed into oblivion and plastered on the cover of People magazine. They are not perfect and do not strive to be. They are simply and only the individuals who have recognized the capacity within each one of us to expect the best out of themselves, their peers, and the world around them.
“There’s no triumph waiting.
There’s no sunset to ride off in.
We all want to be great men and there’s nothing romantic about it.
I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given.”
-The Wonder Years, I Just Want to Sell Out my Funeral