Is There a Case for Optimism?

Sometimes I’m living the dream… safe and sound in America. But sometimes I behold the nightmare on the flipside of my dream. In the dream I am a child of privilege – born healthy, of middle class white parents, in the middle of the 20th century in America. It’s all about timing and location. Too young to know the deprivation of the Great Depression. Too young to fight in WWII and Korea. Military service before Vietnam. Too old for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two public universities while they were still free, and now receiving full Social Security and Medicare just as it was promised. I can’t imagine a better dream but it’s not a dream it’s my reality.

So what’s the nightmare? In moments of existential angst I fear that I will be reincarnated as a Somali woman with three children, no food, no water, in a lawless barren landscape surrounded by the mercenary soldiers of some two-bit warlord who thinks humanitarian aid is a plot to take his puny little fiefdom away from him. That’s my nightmare, but it is reality for thousands of Somalis.

My reality is someone else’s dream and my nightmare is someone else’s awful reality. I try to be mindful that my existence on this planet is a gift. I didn’t do anything to make it happen and it’s clearly not fair when Somalis by some malevolent role of the dice are malnourished, sick, and persecuted. Last night while I was driving to the gym I heard the story of a father who walked 300 miles in 30 days with his three sick, malnourished children to reach help in a refugee camp in Kenya. I drive half a mile to buy milk for my morning latte.

What’s my point? It’s really a question; given the misery, greed, suffering, and outright evil in the world is it possible to stay optimistic about the future of civilization? It’s not impossible for me in spite of what I know. But, can my Somali woman be optimistic about the chances that her children’s hunger and illness will be dealt with? Her whole being is focused on getting help for her children. It’s not about her own well being. Maybe she can’t act otherwise. Just maybe, we, as humans, are hardwired to “believe” or not to give up even when the odds are terrible.

The recent past is full of examples that support a pessimistic view. You don’t have to look at the nuclear standoff of the Cold War or the current battle between Muslims and Christians to see the downside. In my lifetime the North Vietnamese tortured and killed their own countrymen when their loyalty was in question. Then, when they prevailed, they confiscated the property of their southern countrymen and imprisoned them in “re-education” camps for up to 10 years. But, they didn’t kill their spirit and optimism. Many of these “losers” left the camps and risked everything in rickety boats to start a new life – optimistic that there was a future for them somewhere. And, for many, there was.

In the disturbing book and movie Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, we watch the French police herding Jews into trucks for the Germans. 76,000 French Jews were sent to the extermination camps by their own countrymen. The Danes and the Dutch refused to do it, but the French sent their own people to die in the camps. Where is the case for optimism; the French were not illiterate Africans fighting for their own survival. They were one of the most literate, developed, and sophisticated cultures on the planet at the time.

There are so many contemporary examples of countrymen tormenting and torturing each other – Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iran, Gaza, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, and the Republic of Congo. Can we be optimistic in a world that acts like this? I’ve always considered myself a short term pessimist and long term optimist. I don’t know why or what I have to be optimistic about. It might just be the child of privilege legacy. Still… I continue to have the nightmare. I guess there’s a little of Sisyphus in all of us. We just need to keep pushing the boulder up the hill in the hope that when we get to the top it will stay there.


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