Tag Archives: optimism

Keeping the faith

jamaicasky

There is a melancholy to the world right now.  I’ve been sensing it for some time, but it crystallized this morning when I was driving my son to camp and we had the radio on.  BBC News was informing us in mellifluous London tones about the sum total of horror and death experienced on planet Earth in the last 24 hours.  The boy was nervous about his first day and a story about three people burned alive in their house wasn’t helping matters.  I switched to the classical station and made some comment about how, “you know, about 95-96% of all people everywhere are basically good, decent people going about their lives; dropping off their kids, going to work, coming home at the end of the day and eating dinner with their family.  It’s not ‘newsworthy,’ but it’s important to remember that when you hear the bad stories.”  He nodded and continued staring out the window in silence at the rain streaking past the glass.  When we arrived at the camp, he perked up in the presence of other kids and jubilant counselors eager to get started on what promised to be an exciting week.  The downpour outside would not dampen those moods.   I was envious, but I had to leave; work awaited.

Humanity, ever the walking contradiction, is remarkable for the limitless reach of its imagination and its capability to accomplish jaw-dropping feats given enough drive and cooperation, tempered by an equal and sometimes overpowering capacity to shoot itself in the foot.  Every time we think we’re finally on the right road, someone veers us back into the weeds and we take another couple of decades to dig ourselves out.  Lately it seems that the foot-shooting faction has the loudest microphones (and the biggest guns, for that matter) and one is given to muse whether all those popular dystopian novels are merely prophetic.  What do you do to get through the day and hope you’re never faced with the choice of whether you want to be Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless, or with your kid representing your district in a fight to the death against other kids and holographic monsters?

Some trust in the unseen hand of a deity.  But that is a path I strayed off a long time ago.

A child is not born believing anything (one could argue it is our most spiritually pure state, but one would prefer to save that lengthy discussion for another time); its exposure to religion comes entirely through the actions of its parents and family, whether enforced strictly – regular memorization and expected flawless recitation of critical verses under threat of withdrawal of dessert – or the more lackadaisical approach my clan used:  remember to say grace at dinner and be sure your plaid clip-on tie is pressed for this Sunday’s service.  (I did grow up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, after all.)  I was, in point of fact, the rare sort who hated decamping to Sunday school mid-sermon to make paper cut-outs of Noah’s Ark when I preferred to stay to listen to what the pastor had to say, and looked forward to the day I could be exempt from the childish frivolities.  I think it was more that I enjoyed the idea of not being confined to the kids’ table anymore.  But I didn’t take any of what was being said to heart.  At the risk of sounding like one of these literary rejection letters, the material simply wasn’t a good fit for me.  Being smacked with a series of tough losses as I encroached upon and waded through my teenage years, increasingly inured me against what was being offered from the altar.

To make a potentially lengthy digression rather short, I have always had to find a different source of faith, a different path to spiritual realization.  I’ve always felt a bit like a human Play-Doh set, you know the one where you shove a misshapen clump in the hole in the top, press on it with a plunger to push it through a mold, and out comes a star-shape or a crescent moon or what-have-you.  I take in whatever’s available, run it through the dusty old processor upstairs and spit out some semblance of conclusion, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s some variation of crap.  It’s an answer, but not THE answer.  It never adds up to 42.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s simply too much raw material being crammed into the Play-Doh hole (that sounds a lot filthier than it’s meant to).  My wife and I were talking about this on the weekend – actually she did most of the talking since I’m a decent writer but a piss-poor conversationalist – about the value of simplifying and unplugging.  FOMO makes you clench up at the first sounds of that, but then again, what is it that we’re fearing missing out on?  Clickbait articles about celebrity breakups?  Trending hashtags, affirmation-seeking selfies and endless navel-gazing ramblings about the nature of the universe?  Um…

Anyway, the point, one supposes, is that letting yourself get overwhelmed by the noise means not appreciating the value of what is right there in front of you.  One of the hardest things about success is accepting that it’s not what you think it is.  Jealous hackles raised at somebody else’s million-dollar book deal obstruct the pride you should feel upon being presented with the crude pencil drawing your son just did for you.  Slumped shoulders at the unaffordable month-long island getaway enjoyed by your more affluent acquaintances rob you of the serenity found in the chirping of the birds in your backyard.  Ironically, moaning that everyone other than you is getting everything they’ve ever wanted in life is ignoring that some of those people are thinking the very same thing about you.  More doesn’t mean better.  Mo’ money mo’ problems, as a noted poet famously once said.  What difference do all those externalities make once you’re done strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage?

The secret behind successful marketing is making you, the potential customer, feel terrible at what you don’t have.  And we are all doing it to ourselves.  Inadequacy is an emotion entirely self-imposed, and like interest, it compounds.  Like a particularly insidious virus it begins to infect your worldview.  You gravitate toward the morose; confirmation bias leads you to seek out only those stories that reaffirm this concept that the world is an irredeemably terrible place.  Consequentially, your personality starts to change.  Laughter certainly, but even smiles begin to grow rare, and what once moved you now leaves you stone and still.  Something is missing, you feel, and you rush to fill the void with more stuff instead of stepping back, taking a breath and saying whoa, things being as they are, I actually have it pretty darn good.  Till the day your friends and family question what ever happened to the vibrant sort you used to be – and you don’t have an answer for them.  You kind of stand there, struck dumb, fumbling for a rationale that remains elusive.  You can’t trace events from point A to point Z, you know only that it happened, and a lot of irreplaceable time was spent on a pointless journey into the ditch.  You loaded the bullet, cocked the pistol, and fired into your foot over and over again, and now you can’t explain why it’s bleeding.

Where the idea of keeping faith enters the frame is learning, upon crawling up from that ditch, to find the value of holding faith in the faces and hearts of those who are closest to you.  Because getting out of bed every day is itself an act of faith; a choice to take what comes at you instead of hiding under the covers.  You wouldn’t do it at all if you didn’t know, innately, beneath the layers of insecurity and/or bravado, that you have got this.  So do those 95-96% of people in the world who spend their days beneath the radar of the news, doing good, pushing humanity forward against the tide that seeks to roll us back into the sea of ignorance and stupidity.  We will never hear about most of them – but we can keep faith that they are there, just as we can keep faith in the friends and family whose paths cross ours.  And thank whatever god or goddess you believe in – or thank nothing at all, if that’s your preference – that they are.  And learn to smile about it.

Maybe it’s not THE answer, maybe it’s not even the answer you wanted.  For the moment, it answers enough.  When I pick my son up later today, when he bounces into the car whooping and hollering about the amazing time he had, today’s act of faith will have been rewarded.  I knew that he’d have a good time.  Beneath his nerves, so did he.  The storm shall indeed pass, the clouds will open, and the light will shine through.  We will go on.

Have faith.

Advertisements

The last good fight

“Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” – Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’  I agree with the second part.” – William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Seven

“Nothing baffles the schemes of evil people so much as the calm composure of great souls”Comte de Mirabeau

Warren Kinsella is a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and continues to assist the Liberal Party of Ontario during its election campaigns – to put him in West Wing terms, he’s a wartime consigliere.  I read his blog frequently and don’t always agree with him (not to sound like the Dos Equis guy here) but respect him for several reasons:  one of which is that he says liberals should always be full-throated go-for-the-gut liberals, and another is that he believes in the nobility of always fighting for what is important.  (He is the lone liberal voice on Canada’s pathetic Fox News clone Sun News Network, which gives you a sense of his willingness to take the fight to the enemy’s turf.)  The other day he posited that he thought the human race was evil and beyond redemption.  He cited the examples of the Syrian massacre and a particular website which offers video of disturbing violent acts (which I’m not going to link to for obvious reasons).  Clearly, if you want to go down that route, there are thousands of examples more.  It’s one of those arguments that you’ll always find more evidence to support if you need it – like “politicians are corrupt,” “democracy doesn’t work” or “Jersey Shore is a blight on society.”

I don’t subscribe to this thinking, because it’s the easy way out.  (And in fairness to the usually spunky Warren, he could have just been having a bad day or been thinking about the world his kids are growing up in.)  To me, it’s throwing up your hands and surrendering before you even strap on the first shin pad.  It’s saying that principles do not matter, values are not important and attempting to live a civilized, moral life is futile.  It’s looking at the world’s douchebags living high off the hog and wondering why the hell we’re trying so hard not to be them, with the idea that our way is better for the soul, when we’re getting screwed by the universe anyway while they reap the rewards.  Like the worker ant who dutifully and nobly carries food back to the colony day after day only to be scorched to death one sunny afternoon by a smirking brat with a magnifying glass.  But it’s ground that I don’t believe the human race as a whole can afford to concede.  It’s not a world I want to live in.  Indeed, it’s not a world that would live very long.

On Star Trek and its successors, you’d often find the crew visiting planets where everyone wore the same outfit and shared the same opinion.  Absent was the dichotomy that defines humanity – the extremes of light and dark and good and evil that share contradictory space inside the soul.  The same heart that loves one hates another; the same species that cherishes beauty creates ugliness.  But it’s important not to forget that despite the increasing societal obsession with what is worst about us (fostered by media companies trying to scare you into buying things you don’t need), we have truly done some remarkable things in our relatively short time in the cosmos.  We have forged incredible works of art, literature, music.  We have crafted a society of laws and good governance.  We have cured devastating illnesses and been able to shift the focus of our existence from mere survival to the enrichment of our spirit and of our collective consciousness.  We have even taken the tiniest of baby steps away from our world into the endless realm of possibility that lies beyond.  Why, when looking at this evidence, should we continue to base our opinion of ourselves on the abysses rather than the apexes?  Are we really no better than the very worst of us?  Are we all hovering forever on a tipping point of evil, just one fragile breath away from unleashing our inner Hitler?

No goddamn way.  Call it what you will – even dare to call it faith.  But to say humanity is evil and beyond redemption is to admit I am evil and beyond redemption.  And I am better than that.  I know I am.  I know we all are.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece criticizing the conservative moguls funding attack ads against the President of the United States.  I submitted it to The Huffington Post and was surprised that they liked it enough to feature it prominently on their Politics page.  The response was quite staggering, with what I’d say was probably a 3 to 1 ratio of comments supporting what I had to say versus condemning it.  And the ones who condemned it certainly didn’t mince words.  But I don’t regret writing the piece.  It was something that I felt needed to be said, and a lot of people agreed with me.  (Interestingly enough, not that I can claim any responsibility, an article subsequently appeared in Politico where these right-wing sugar daddies are now complaining that they are being picked on, apparently forgetting that one of the tenets of free speech is the right of everyone else to tell you you’re being a dick when you say something they don’t like.)  I’ve accepted that I’ll never be a billionaire or wield the kind of influence over the masses that some really awful people do.  But my voice will always be my own, and that is something that cannot be purchased from anybody else.  And I will continue to use it to advocate the world I want to see, the world I know we can attain, with every single breath, until I can no longer speak.  It’s like that wonderful poem from The Grey:  “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know.”

The bastards will not grind me down.

To be or not to be… hopeful

“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” – Margaret Thatcher (great line regardless of whether you supported her or not)

We have a conscious choice to make when we start writing anything, whether to be positive or negative.  Given the near infinite flexibility of words to create a specific tonality, even one phrase out of place, one ill-timed sarcastic barb, can radically alter the message we are trying to send.  If one tends toward the cynical, toward an overwhelming frustration with the way of the world and humanity’s seeming unwillingness to get its collective act together, keeping an upbeat theme is that much harder.  Throwing up one’s hands and then crapping phonetically over everything that rubs you the wrong way is the escape valve for the bitter, the apathetic and the cowardly.  One can liken optimism somewhat to the idea of faith, in the steadfast committal to believe in something in spite of physical evidence to the contrary.  Human beings are tremendously flawed creatures capable of doing terrible, unspeakable things to each other, but do I want to live my entire life resigned to accepting the limits of our collective potential being defined by the worst of us?  Must we always be forced to play in the dirt by those who choose to wallow there?

Criticism is a word with almost universally negative connotations, because in the age of the Internet, where “coolguy69” can dump polemics of visceral hatred (usually not phrased or even spelled as eloquently) on websites and message boards around the world and skulk back to his mother’s basement free of the responsibility of standing behind his words, we’ve forgotten that the point of criticism is, fundamentally, to offer suggestions for improvement.  Snark gets noticed – when dealing with attention spans so overwhelmed by sheer volume of input they’ve been reduced to microseconds, the quick jab with the blade garners the headline and the retweet, instead of the drawn-out approach of reason and thoughtful consideration and counterpoint.  We then pat ourselves on the back for what clever smartasses we are, forgetting in our momentary endorphin glow as the clicks and likes add up, that we are contributing nothing, advancing nothing, signifying nothing.  It is as Shakespeare so cannily observed 400 years ago, a tale told by an idiot – and deserving of no further consideration.

I don’t want to be that guy.  I don’t want to be the hipster loudmouth at the party who sips his appletini while he pontificates upon the downfall of Western civilization, throwing in handy Cliffs Notes references to Albert Camus and the collected works of Francois Truffaut while he constructs a dizzying, grand unifying thesis of how the human obsession with reality television and Facebook is merely foreshadowing the zombie apocalypse.  Instead, I want to be the optimist.  And that’s easier than you might think, because the evidence is everywhere.  For every Joseph Kony in the world there are a hundred million good, decent, honest people, working hard, raising families, treating friends, neighbors and strangers alike with the respect and tolerance we should all merit by the mere fact of our existence.  Not easy to remember when the Konys suck up all the news coverage, which is why sniping at the big bad universe is always the quicker, more seductive path – the dark side of the op-ed.  When discourse has become so polarized, left and right so implacably divorced and compromise an archaic concession of the ideologically weak, is it not morally better to try and calm the waters – to try and point towards better days ahead – instead of stirring them further?  Sighing and sneering won’t get us to the future that I continue to hope for in moments when I behold the wonders of nature, the possibilities of human achievement, and the smile of a child.

I don’t have a problem putting my name and photograph alongside my words, because I’m of the belief that if you wouldn’t carve it in concrete on your front porch, you shouldn’t publish it online.  I can do that comfortably because I am proud that I have chosen, as the old song says, to accentuate the positive, and if I’m to be criticized for what I’ve written, I can take it, secure in the knowledge that I’ve given my best.  It’s difficult at times; I get frustrated, even downright pissed off at a lot of what goes on out there, and many first drafts full of ugly vitriol have gone into the digital bin when I have stopped, taken a breath and asked myself what good it would do.  That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.  Are we doing any good with our words?  If not, then why are we bothering to write them?