My younger self had this recurring intuition that any human mind, given enough experience and space, invariably finds optimism. It will see that it’s own wellbeing relies on the wellbeing of others. Others who are fundamentally the same- conscious creatures each making sense of their own pyrotechnics show: the emotions, the urges, the ever-accumulating stories, dreams, and regrets. Each prone to suffering. Each yearning to be well. The human mind wants to see the bright side. Not because it is foolish, but because it understands this underpins collective progress. This tendency guides our moral arc, away from primal chaos toward something we can’t describe exactly, but feels right.
Years passed and this idea was challenged. Highly intelligent people spend lifetimes suffering. Some successfully chase dreams that deliver nothing but frustration. Others learn helplessness and hopelessness- haunted by trauma they cannot relieve. Some have minds that are atypically charged with difficult emotions and behaviors. Others are chronically transfixed by shiny lights of the world… never granting themselves space to look within. Most of us experience degrees of all these things. Beneath it all, deception looms. The entire landscape feels uncertain. In response, we engage with skepticism, sarcasm, cynicism, and nihilism. What happened to optimism? It feels foolish here. It signals gullibility and weakness. We are wonderfully efficient at confirming and broadcasting how terrible the world is. Surely, optimism should be applied sparingly, if at all?
Lately I’m revisited by the intuition of my younger self.
(Nice seeing you again)
The human mind is a marvelous machine and we’re all equipped with one. It’s beyond comprehension, evolved over millions of years to consume information, learn, explore, and survive. It is not inherently good or bad, it just does what it does for reasons that are totally mysterious. (Is this machine us? Are we part of this machine? Does the brain have a mind, or does the mind have a brain? Are we a spooky entities who survive when this machine turns off? Despite the most fervent speculation of science and philosophy and folklore, we cannot know. All we can do is experience.) Nevertheless, this machine seems to do these things and we exist in relationship with it. Each of us born into random circumstances that immediately begin shaping us, and us them.
Optimism, then, is a lottery within a lottery, within these random circumstances. Something that might be discovered, not just once, but twice. Once, when its merits are first understood – seeing the good side for the sake of self and others. And a second time, even more unlikely but more crucially – seeing that not only can optimism survive in a fantastically gloomy world, it is strategic and necessary.
Optimism can be highly intelligent, patient, and deliberate, without being aggressive, righteous, or naive. Optimism can be as much about nonreaction as reaction. Optimism is the fruit of long reflection. Ideas that feed themselves, as opposed to feeding on attacks of others.
Optimism is a gift. One to be offered not with force or condescension, but with humility and patience. Optimism is often unpalatable — it’s easier to admit problems over solutions. So it works like a seed, not anxious to disturb anything or anyone unnecessarily, but sprouting opportunistically where it is able.
Optimism needs protection, from fear, from anger, from doubt, from pride. Optimism defends itself, but seeks no harm on antagonists. It often resides-in, reacts-with, silence.
Optimism needs faith, not belief in magic, but in trusting its resilience. It’s disinterest in destruction is intentional, as that would undermine it’s own foundation. This insight is the culmination of reflection on causes and events, possibilities, and the golden rule – compassion. The pearl in the oyster of the human spirit. The pinnacle of critical thought.
Optimism is the place rigorous intelligence really wants to be, if given the chance.