Maybe Billy Joel was right when he said “We didn’t start the fire.” As I type this, I’m looking over at a stack of “Horrible Histories” books by Terry Deary, a series that presents thousands of years of human misery and tragedy in a cartoony format suitable for child readers (it’s brilliant, really). The existence (and great success) of these books demonstrates two things to me:
1. Humans have been screwing up for a long, long time. We screw each other up, we screw ourselves up, and we screw up the places we live. There’s enough screwing up to fill volumes of books for all ages, to keep scholars busy, to keep all of us shaking our heads and tsk-tsking until the end of time (or until we screw up so badly that we don’t exist anymore).
2. This screwing up has been bad enough, cruel enough, and ignorant enough that eventually, we had no choice but to make it into cartoons, parody it, and make light of it. How else could we digest this much screwing up?
So, I’ve never considered myself an optimist. I’ve tried to approach things with a sunnier outlook. There’s the line in”Shakespeare In Love” uttered when all seems to have gone to pot. When asked how things could possibly work out, Phillip Henslowe shrugs and says “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” There’s also the gem from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “It will all be alright in the end. If it isn’t alright, it it’s not the end.” I have a hard time rationalizing the notion that everything will be okay. I don’t think the universe works that way. Sometimes bad guys don’t get punished, sometimes good guys lose out, and sometimes things just flat out suck.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a happy, productive person, and it’s not because deep, deep down, I harbour some secret belief that everything is helium balloons and rainbow sprinkles. I’m not, however, comfortable with the label of pessimist. Maybe it’s just that “optimism” is due for a bit of an overhaul.
There’s the traditional definition of optimism: the belief that everything will turn out right, and that there is positivity to be found in any situation. I’ve got a problem with this. There are situations that are decidedly negative, and I think putting on rose-coloured glasses and turning away from the dark stuff is demeaning. Asking someone who is dealing with death, disease, violence, or general malaise to slap on a smile belittles the struggle. A person can be pissed off and still get on with things. What’s more, it sometimes seems the people who get the lion’s share of crap are the one’s who are expected to grin and bear it, and it’s often the case that anger and sadness serve as motivators for improving a bad situation. Nope, I can’t be this kind of optimist.
There’s also the “well, it could be worse” school of optimism. True, no matter how bad things get, there’s probably someone, somewhere who has it worse. I’m all for being grateful for what we have, but I can’t stomach using the misery of others as a springboard into my own happiness. Schadenfreude will only get you so far. Sooner or later, one realizes that although it could be worse, it still ain’t great. I can’t be this kind of optimist either.
There’s a third option. I don’t always think that things will get better, but I’m pretty sure things can be different. Good things don’t always come to those who wait, but change does. I’m a believer in possibilities, and it seems to me that in the 21st century, there are more possibilities than ever before. Some of these possibilities will blow up in our faces, and some will make life easier. The good news isn’t that things will all work out in the end, but that right here, right now, we have the means to invent, test, and share possibilities. This is my optimism, the notion that when the going gets rough, we can at least get going in a different direction. Do I expect things to go well? Not really. Do I hope they will? Yeah, I do, and I’m willing to take a few risks to see if it happens.
Margaret Laurence, who was not a sunshine and rainbows type of person, once said that writing “is an act of hope and faith; it says life is worth living.” So here I am, with the odd little black cloud floating overhead, half-smiling and tippity-tapping away at my computer, doing optimism the only way I know how. Fingers crossed that it works out.