I consider myself to be an optimistic person. What’s strange is that I can’t pin down why exactly that is. Perhaps it was my experiences at Camp Manito-wish, perhaps it’s the necessity of being optimistic for my College Possible students, or perhaps I’m just weird or crazy for even thinking of myself as an optimist. I’ve been in some conversations with friends that ask me why I’m optimistic, and it used to be that I would have to really think about a valid answer. After all, we see so much destruction on the daily news not only in our own country, but in the world as well. War, climate change, mass shootings, famine, exploitation of the poor by the rich on both a national and global scale, the list goes on and on. So what am I supposed to say when someone asks me why the hell I would be an optimist?
Up until recently I didn’t have an answer. To not be optimistic is to deny one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be a human being: hope. That’s it. I’m an optimist because I refuse to believe that any problem is beyond fixing or that any one person can’t be “saved” in some way, whatever that might mean. The kind of hope I’m talking about is a uniquely human emotion. Beating the odds, never giving up, helping one another in the most remarkable of ways. The ability of humans to do these truly incredible things is what drives me every single day. I have faith in humans, and that’s why I am hopeful for the future.
Hope is one of those things that people can connect with without even thinking about it. I think about some of the stories that have defined my generation or even my parents’ generation and the common theme is always hope. Look at franchises like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I would argue that they are so successful because the main characters beat those odds, and they overcome so much despite never having much hope to begin with. Yes, these famous tales are all fantasy, but why can’t any of that be applied to real life as well? It always just takes the right mindset and the right people, and I believe that every human has the capacity to be that person. The key is getting them in the proper setting to do so, which is the part of this whole idea that I am still working on.
Of course, I’ve run into a couple of arguments against even thinking about hope like this. Some friends of mine consider them “realists” rather than pessimists, but I would say that I’m a realist as well, because no matter how bad things are, there is still always hope. I don’t think that’s deniable. Slavery, the Holocaust, the wars for independence from colonization all over the world, and the Civil Rights Movement all had aspects that were in a sense hopeless. Oppression is a hard thing to overcome, but history can teach us that things get better. Yes, today’s world is messed up. But turmoil would never be complete if it didn’t also produce new ideas, viewpoints, discussions, passions, movements, revolutions, and the like. That’s the part of reality that I focus on: the fact that we can talk about all of these things that are happening and find solutions. While we live in a time of political polarization, I know from my own experience that having the necessary discussions can open people’s eyes and start working towards solving the problems. It’s still possible. And it’s realistic. Maybe not in the next five, ten, even twenty years, but I still have faith that everything can get better.
The other argument one of my closest friends had was that there are some people who are truly hopeless in the world, so how can you talk about hope with them? I cannot pretend that I’m an expert on mental illnesses or depression, which I assume is part of what my friend was talking about. I haven’t seen the worst of their effects, although I have friends who have gone through depression, eating disorders, or other mental illnesses. I have been lucky enough to never experience seeing death due to suicide, but I know many of my friends and acquaintances certainly have. At the same time, mental illness awareness has been skyrocketing in recent years, at least from what I can tell from my own experience. That awareness is a step towards improving mental health, which of course brings with it no small amount of hope. One of my friends is currently in grad school for psychology, and we were talking about this once and the number one thing that therapists are supposed to do is to give their patients hope. Doing that can get complicated, but I refer back to how powerful the concept of hope is for humanity as a whole. Yes, there are people who have the feeling of hopelessness, but again I’ll say that I believe that people can find the light, no matter who they are, even if it’s the most difficult thing they’ve ever done.
Being an optimist is hard. It does not mean I don’t see what’s going on, and it doesn’t mean I think everything will be perfect in the future. It just means that I have faith that things can always get better. Humanity is capable of incredible things, but I know it can be hard to see that sometimes. And I still worry. I worry that climate change is at the point of no return. I worry that the War on Terror will never end. I worry about the 2016 presidential election. Yet there is still the thought at the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, everything will turn out for the better. I can’t imagine that thought isn’t in everyone’s mind at some point. But it’s important to embrace that. If hope always remained hidden, buried underneath the politics, death, and poverty of the world, then nothing would ever change. And that’s why optimism is important.