My friend Jorge was on his way back home to Denver after his most recent job to begin a two-week vacation. There was no immediate deadline to return the truck and his boss okayed a one day layover in Nebraska. We found a place for him to legally park it overnight, close to my house. Jorge said he really needed a break from driving and sitting. He felt like taking a walk.
“Do you mind a short drive to a place we can enjoy a pleasant stroll?” I asked. Jorge grinned and agreed to just a very short ride to the “Cowboy Trail” that begins at “Ta Ha Zouka Park” just south of Norfolk. It’s one of the nicer places in this part of Nebraska. I packed a Thermos of coffee and some sandwiches to bring along. Then we climbed into the ol’ Camry for the drive.
Jorge launched into his concerns about the state of the nation and how it is affecting his morale. Specifically, he worries about the tensions that are being fueled by certain Presidential candidates in their efforts to escalate the culture war in the United States.
I replied that I shared his concerns. Throughout history, there have been great numbers of gullible, angry people who cast about for scapegoats. Striving leaders frequently latch onto the xenophobia and other fears in hopes of riding the popular wave to individual, personal political power. In the process, reasonable, rational thought is discarded. Jorge said, “Yes, It’s like torches and pitchforks out there.”
I parked the car, grabbed my small knapsack, locked the doors and steered Jorge towards the trail head. We noted the mostly cloudy sky with occasional sunshine. The wind was from the north, but not strong, so we zipped up our jackets and started down the path.
Jorge looked at me and complained that optimism and pessimism have been struggling for dominance in his mind. He is normally very upbeat and confident about his place in the world. Lately, though, the tension of pessimism has been trying to break through. He said he has been getting “the look” from some “red neck” truckers at truck stops. Jorge quickly noted that he hasn’t encountered physical threats, but he is more wary these days.
My friend is concerned that his hard-won optimism may get pushed aside as the mood of the country, and people he encounters, becomes darker. Jorge wants to keep faith in the future, but he doesn’t want it to be a mindless, pollyanna kind of hopefulness. The lukewarm kind of happy, happy Internet meme type of optimism definitely turns him off.
I assured him that I have been feeling similar emotions the past few months, as well. Ever since the marriage equality decision last year, the blow-back and backlash has been building in certain parts of the country. People do not willingly give up their perceived advantages and opinions. It’s my view that as long as progress is measured in three steps forward and one step back, it still counts as improvement.
I know that there are many more good people out there who don’t like the divisiveness any more than we do. It’s just a matter of getting them excited enough to counter the increasing hatred.
Jorge smiled and paraphrased Voltaire. “Optimism is the madness of insisting that everything is fine and dandy, when, actually, we are frightened and miserable.” He admitted that he will probably never fully understand what makes people do the stupid things they say and do just as he hasn’t been able to know these things about himself, either.
Even though he has been encountering people who are more suspicious and negative, Jorge says he still tries to keep an open mind in return. He believes that if pessimism takes control, his attitude would make life miserable.
I get what Jorge means. Lately, I’ve been more successful in feeling a sort of equilibrium regarding the state of this crazy country. I understand that optimism is believing that things are better than reality and that pessimism is believing that things are worse than reality. For the time being, I consider myself as a realist. This is the result of my authentic, real-life experiences.
My pal said that he discarded his rose-colored glasses a long time ago but he kept his inate curiosity. He credits his upbeat husband and friends with helping him maintain a lot of his confidence. Jorge says that sometimes that confidence feels a bit wobbly but it’s always in the background. He says he avoids people who are superstitious and paranoid. So, maybe he’s a realist, too.
I admitted that when I feel cynical or bummed out, I do like to read uplifting poetry or essays. A little bit of optimism is good fuel for a happier life. I just don’t get swept away into fantasyland like I used to. I certainly don’t like the feeling of pessimism, though. This is why I like the old nautical idiom, “keep on an even keel”. I imagine a ship’s captain steering through tall swells and dips in stormy seas. To make it to home port, he has to remain aware of, yet not fearful of, the storm.
Jorge added that it is very easy to be optimistic when life is treating you reasonably well and fairly. But if you’re overly optimistic when you should be realistic, you’re not only being foolish, but you may be setting yourself up for a big failure.
He needs just a small dose of optimism to keep him from falling into despair and pessimism. That kind of optimism is more closely related to confidence than blind faith.
Jorge noticed a pair of benches that afford a view of the Elkhorn River, then mentioned that he needed to rest. We sat without talking for several minutes. I poured coffee into the mugs I had brought along. As we nursed the hot cups, we listened to the wind. It had increased in speed. But we were sheltered within a small grove of trees.
Jorge asked if I had heard about the latest research that raises concern about optimism. Apparently, overly optimistic people have shorter lifespans than pessimists. Optimists beliee they have more control over life and cultivate blind faith in positive outcomes. Meanwhile, pessimists have a better handle on reality and are more cautious during difficult times. Pessimists are more likely to seek professional, legitimate help than are optimists.
I laughed and commented that it looks like there’s a bright side to pessimism. I wonder if that positive aspect shakes pessimists’ faith in pessimism.
Jorge said he hoped that this information would tone down the self-righteous attitude of many optimists. Some of them seem to believe that optimism is a superior worldview. A healthy dose of realism would be a good thing for overly optimistic people. In moral terms, a reality check should do them a real service.
For the time being, we decided that being realists was our best option. We looked at each other with wide grins. Then we decided to resume our refreshing walk.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders a quip from Aung San Suu Kyi. “If I advocate cautious optimism, it is not because I do not have faith in the future, but because I do not want to encourage blind faith.”