On optimism

I have officially survived my first two weeks of my new 10-month service venture. Everyone on all the different teams in the organization seems terribly nice and I have not been nearly as shy around them as I was afraid I would be. Apparently hermit life hasn’t completely destroyed my ability to interact with others. Also, the more I learn about this organization, the more sure I am that I have made the right decision about what to do for the next 10 months. I’m even already starting to take on Responsibilities, despite the fact that the first week was orientation, so I’ve only had one week of training so far, and I also have zero experience in anything I’m doing.

As a newly minted client services coordinator, I have literally been dreaming every night about grants and insurance and loans. I expect to be completely mummified in red tape soon. Part of my job — apparently a fairly sizable part, too — will be telling people no. No, you don’t qualify. No, we can’t help you. This will suck for me but suck a whole lot worse for them. In a weird way, that’s motivating me. My frustration will be nothing compared to the people still rebuilding after a natural disaster that happened two and a half years ago. Even when I have to say no, I’m hoping I will also be able to say why. Maybe, if nothing else, I’ll be able to clear up some of the agonizing confusion.

Of course, that means I have a whole lot of learnin’ to do myself. Early in the week, I found myself falling back on grad school strategies: “Don’t just take notes on it if you still don’t know what it means,” I told myself several times. I kind of enjoy squinting at the computer screen with a skeptical eye, trying to determine if a) the text makes sense and b) I agree with it. I always did love school, but now the stakes are higher than just my own grades.

A couple of times, the topic of “rose-colored glasses” was raised — as in, make sure you’re not wearing them. I’m really not, but some people may l think that I am, because there is nothing that can stop me from being blazingly, doggedly, indefatigably optimistic about the work I’m about to do. Optimism is very often conflated with naivete, but to me, they couldn’t be more different. Rose-colored glasses are for the naive. Optimists are the people who look straight at the hard truths of a situation and say, “Yep, we can work with this.” Optimists do not deny pain. They also do not deny joy.

Writing off positivity and hope as some sort of illusion is just as unrealistic a worldview as pretending that negativity and hardship do not exist. I know because I have done both. As a child, I knew that there were some bad people and bad circumstances. I have always felt and thought deeply about the suffering of others, even before I’d lost my first baby teeth. (I was a kind of intense kid.) But I assumed that suffering was by and large a rarity. I assumed that all problems could and would be fixed by the adults of the world. I projected my parents’ goodness onto everyone, and therefore I thought that nothing could stay very bad for long. As a children’s lit person, I don’t mean to imply that all children are naive. But I was, and I’m glad I was, because it stemmed from being loved and protected and safe.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I swung the other way completely, and that was by brain chemistry, not choice. By the time this happened, I was nearing the end of college. Obviously at this point, I wasn’t as naive as I had been at age six, but I still had great faith in humanity — a faith that vanished seemingly overnight. Suddenly I thought that no disaster could be prevented, and every person on Earth was simply rushing towards a series of unavoidable catastrophes that would eventually claim them. Simply put, I found myself believing in the doctrine of “nasty, brutish, and short.” I’d pass a stroller and pity the baby for having been born. I’d sit next to a stranger on the bus and envy them their ignorance of the hellscape I was convinced was about to unfold.

You’ll often hear people say that if you expect the worst, you will be pleasantly surprised by a better outcome, but I found nothing pleasant about pessimism at all. I didn’t even feel like I was myself anymore — and, as a pessimist, I did not believe I could get myself back.

And then I proved myself wrong.

My optimism these days is not about platitudes or blind faith. My optimism is fierce and furious. I didn’t solve the problem of my own despair just to leave other people in theirs. So I will believe the best can happen because I am going to make it happen. And when I personally can’t be the one to make it happen, I will put my trust in the other optimists of the worlds, the ones who stave off helplessness and hopelessness by working as hard as they goddamn can because that’s the only way they know how to live. These are the people who, like me, would much rather be disappointed by a bad outcome than never even trying to make something good happen.

I know these people are out there. I just joined a whole organization of them. I don’t need rose-colored glasses to see that.


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