Why Be Optimistic?
7 minute read
How far along the path are you?
The answer may vary depending on your age.
Setting this aside for a moment, how far along the path are we?
Most of us use the same calendar and can agree that the year is 2021. However, no two people have the same concept of time and human history. Even when the bigger picture is at hand I won’t take an equal amount of steps back or forward as the other person. We remain in separate time zones.
People who apparently think of long-term consequences, I’ve noticed, carry an air of superiority over those who live with disregard for the future impact of their choices. But the long-term prophets themselves don’t dare think too far ahead, max 20 to 40 years. It’s considered non-pragmatic to deviate from the present moment so far into the future.
Even those of us whom society has deemed responsible with the task of imagination – say filmmakers and storytellers – don’t dare travel thousands of years into the future. Yet there are ample productions and reproductions of tales two thousand years old.
If we can see two thousand years back why can’t we see two thousand years forward? The obvious conclusion is the impossibility of predicting the future. Yet there seems to be an unspoken consensus that the future will be dark and hostile, if not outright destroyed.
We grant that human life is mean; but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent?
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
With war, famine, and poverty in decline, we interject that even one person suffering is one too many. No organ, no person, no nation should suffer. A testament to our intuitive knowledge of interconnectedness of beings. But where does this ‘should’ come from?
It’s clear we get our clues mostly from our ideals and not reality. Looking at existence, in micro, we learn that parasitism is the most popular lifestyle on Earth. Most animal species are probably parasitic. In macro, the universe is much more violent than it once seemed; quasars – powered by massive black holes which can rip apart the very fabric of space and time – devour and shred entire stars.
We were promised a world of good and fairness. Over the short span of our lives reality doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations. We grow disillusioned. So even when things are all gravy for a moment we begin asking what’s the catch? In an adult’s life, every promise becomes accompanied by five warnings. Dangers and threats are broadcasted endlessly. Small miracles are drowned out. Slow and steady advancements are overlooked. This mainly has to do with our bias. A glib outlook demands more glib evidence to survive.
Evolution chose paranoia. Our ancestors roaming the wild had to be extremely paranoid to survive. Relatively, in today’s world of abundance and safety, paranoia and cynicism are overused.
Notice how most predictions begin with the caveat “as things stand” or “on this trajectory” but the reality is much more dynamic than that, especially when you throw in our increasing capacities to forge new realities.
A lot of our deeply pessimistic world views come from a straight-line linear extrapolation of negative trends while ignoring positive trends. Positive trends mostly come through creativity and knowledge creation, and it’s inherently unpredictable.
The cargo ship recently blocking the Suez canal seemed a sight from a dark comedy film and quickly became a meme. The more somber commentators warned of a full-blown crisis for supply chains, expecting weeks for the canal to become clear. However, with prompt response, cooperation, and a little luck it became a matter of days and not weeks. NYT reports:
A full moon on Sunday gave the salvager an especially promising 24-hour window to work in, with a few extra inches of tidal flow providing a vital assist.
Throughout the night on Sunday and into Monday, tugboats worked in coordination with dredgers to return the 220,000-ton vessel to the water.
Then, just before dawn, the ship slowly regained buoyancy.
It was a turning point in one of the largest and most intense salvage operations in modern history, with the smooth functioning of the global trading system hanging in the balance.
The broadcast of worst-case scenario outcomes lasted few days. However, once it became resolved, within hours our collective interest moved on to the next threat.
People get up, they go to work, they have their lives, but you'll never see the headlines say, 'Six billion people got along rather well today.' You'll have the headline about the 30 people who shot each other.
— John Malkovich
The news cycle makes every problem our problem. But it’s far too easy to point the finger outwards instead of confronting our innate attraction to alarming dramas. Next time you’re walking outdoors, notice how when a car honks or when a mad man shouts, your attention unconsciously pulls you to it. Most people certainly will turn to identify the source of the sound. When you realize each of us have shouting mad men and honking cars in our heads as well, it becomes ever critical to overcome this instinct. Maybe there’ll come a time when one of these shouting people has a gun and I’ll be proven wrong, dead wrong. But I’m reminded that “we suffer more in imagination than in reality” and so far I’ve gone unscathed thousands of times ignoring such disturbances.
As my friends like to remind me, I’m overly optimistic. To them I say, how can you not see our personal and collective aspirations slowly manifest? Logistical obstacles and inefficiencies stand in the way but if we take enough steps back the image becomes clearer and our direction more decisive.
For our narrative-seeking minds, reality is unbearably neutral to grasp. Choose your poison. Between optimism and pessimism, which do you choose? The morale-boosting and joyous effects of optimism alone are enough for me to make my pick. The fact that it’s not entirely irrational to be optimistic about the future of humanity is a bonus.
Over 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion, 99 percent of whom are better fed, better sheltered, better entertained and better protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout.
— Matt Ridley
Pessimism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lately talking with my peers and tuning into public conversations I sense that many are putting a glass ceiling on the human race. At least half of the people whether consciously or unconsciously think that we’re nearing the end of our path.
Except very few rigorous thinkers, we pretend to think when we in fact feel. We feel our way to certain positions and then reverse engineer the reasoning. While cherry-picking data is common practice on either end, it may be futile for anyone to reason their way to optimism. The world could very easily be getting exponentially better and worse at the same time.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
— A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
The very diversity of feelings swirling around makes me optimistic. Any specific project needs the expertise of those who can identify possible downfalls and errors. But going through life in a persistent state of cynicism, meeting phenomenon we barely understand with pessimism, that isn’t useful.
If you’re tired of hitting a glass ceiling, give optimism a chance. Outsource pessimism to the many vigilant volunteers. In the meantime ask yourself and those around you whether our parents’ lives were better than ours. The most revealing part is what values each person uses as a yardstick.
The way we face the world alters the face that we see in that world
— David Whyte