Vaccines are sweeping across the nation, the House approved the most significant democracy reform bill in the past half-century, Congress enacted President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that could cut child poverty in half, the economy is set to soar, a jury served justice to Derek Chauvin, who was convicted on all counts in the murder of George Floyd, and the Nationals walked off on opening day. With all that has been going wrong, certain things are now going right.
But—some say—don’t get carried away. Don’t start ignoring the problems, don’t be naive, don’t jump the gun with your happiness. Don’t be, as the relatively new phrase goes, “toxically positive.”
They argue, as Voltaire did in Candide, that optimism is merely “a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.” They see acknowledgements of positive change as evidence of such behavior.
They posit, too, that optimism is a losing bet. That the problems we face are insurmountable, and that fixing those problems is out of our hands, unlikely or even impossible. That the forces arrayed against justice and truth are simply too strong. That little has improved in recent history and that, fundamentally, not much more will. American society will remain unequal, unfair and irredeemably corrupted.
At a historically progressive school at which mostly progressive teachers give mostly progressive students a progressive education, progress is one of the things in which we should believe. But, too often, we deny, ignore and doubt it.
We ask, You really think anything’s going to change? and shake our heads at You really think things are getting better? and murmur sympathetically to You really think we’ve made any progress?
We liken optimism to complacency, or betrayal in the fight against injustice, or juvenile resistance to the obligatory adoption of fatalism.
But “hope” is not a bad word. Optimism helps, not hurts.
There’s a difference between being content with the state of the world and being hopeful about the future.
In fact, dissatisfaction with injustice is at the heart of optimism. Optimism cannot exist without the difficult, pressing problems—if they were all solved, there would be no need for it. What distinguishes optimism is the conclusion it draws about those problems: that they are—through reason, democratic engagement and continuous struggle—improvable (if not solvable).
Most should recognize that Things have changed and more things will is far more useful than Nothing has changed and nothing ever will. One statement starts a conversation; the other ends it. One harnesses energy for change; the other extinguishes it.
“People are often surprised to learn that I am an optimist,” Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in his posthumously published essay “A Testament of Hope.” “They expect [my] experiences to harden me into a grim and desperate man. They fail, however, to perceive the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles.”
Why, then, the resistance to such a way of thinking in our community? The government has never led our democracy “for the people” instead of for the corporations, and no matter who we vote for it never will. Why are such assertions frequent in our community’s discourse?
One reason is that cynicism is safe. If you never get your hopes up, you’ll never be proven wrong when a goal isn’t met or a hope is thwarted. You’ll never be disappointed.
In recent years, scientists have tracked an increasing negativity bias among Americans, not just towards negative news coverage over positive news coverage, but towards the critical speaker over the complimentary one.
But a positive outlook is, in many cases, entirely justified. In general, life has improved for most people around the world in recent decades, growing safer, wealthier, healthier, longer and less violent.
Take, for example, the statistics on poverty. In the U.S., starvation-level poverty has decreased by 80 percent since 1970. In the past decade, 148 out of 167 countries (with 99 percent of the world population) have recorded net progress when it comes to poverty, much of it dramatic. And since 1987, the share of the world population living in extreme poverty has been cut in half.
If we refuse to acknowledge past progress, we may come to believe that future progress is not possible—that attempts to make change are innately futile.
The real optimist uses progress not as an excuse to sit back and relax, but as a reason to get up and make more. We should embrace that sense of affirmation that King spoke of.
Just as we must engage in moments of national anger, shame and mourning, we must engage in moments of hope, too. Not because those moments are pleasant, but because they are useful.
We are emerging from four years of a destructive presidency and one of a debilitating pandemic. Despondence has defined us. Now seems like a good time to lean into hope.
Nick Penniman ’22