How Uncool is Optimism? A Difficult and Worthy Path

Craig Jones


They’re like cilia, these naked trees with all their limbs and branches being nagged at by the early northwest breeze.

That’s the first thought I had, looking north out the window. I know cilia are in our bodies lining respiratory passageways and that they filter and clean out stuff that shouldn’t be there. These bare bony winter cilia all around us seem to be sweeping the blue sky clean, scraping off all the detritus that shouldn’t be there. I’m enjoying thinking of it that way, anyway. I’m no biologist, but I like the imagery.

I’m in hyper-learning mode, as I write and muse and work to open up a space for gratitude into which I want to live this day. I’m in learning mode because of the New England Patriots’ win last night against Houston, a victory that put them in a singular position in NFL history, as the first team ever to be in six consecutive Conference Finals. Six straight opportunities to win one more game and be in the Super Bowl. Coach Bill Belichick was true to form, lamenting what didn’t work well and saying, “We’ve got to coach and execute better.” We, in this part of the world, expect that from him, after all these years. Running back Dion Lewis scored three touchdowns, three different ways (kickoff return, pass reception and rushing), an NFL playoff first. He said, postgame, “I feel like this wasn’t my best game ever, actually, the fumbles (he had two) just putting my team in a bad position.”

Here is why I’m in hyper-learning mode. One columnist I was reading (Tyler Kepner, NY Times) asked in print why dwell on the bad after a night with so much good?

Dion Lewis continued: “That’s just how I am. Never worry about the good stuff. I’m supposed to do stuff like that and my teammates trust me to do stuff like that. I’m worried about ways to get better to keep helping my team win for next week.”

There’s the rub, as Hamlet put it. How do I reconcile that attitude, and Belichick’s approach, and 15 years of excellence by this team, with what I’ve been learning about emphasizing and looking for the good or the blessings, which far, far outweigh the negatives?

I’ve delved into this repeatedly over eight years in these journal pages and in blog posts. I’ve almost gotten to the point where I think it’s indefensible to give much weight to perceived negatives. As indefensible as calling a sunny day, rainy, or the smaller of two piles of blocks, taller. Yet, it is hard to argue with success like this football team’s. Where’s the path here? I’m grateful for the exercise. It’s made me dig deeper and ask more questions. It has pushed this gratitude inquiry to new levels and I like it.

I dealt with an onrush, a word tsunami, about this knife-edge, from sources both fictional and non, abstract and personal. I thought of the scene in Bull Durham, when Tim Robbins (as Nuke, the bonus baby pitcher) comes back to the dugout after a kick-ass inning on the mound.

  • “I was great huh?” he exclaimed.
  • Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), the wise veteran catcher said, “Your fast ball’s up, your curve ball’s hangin’. In the show they’d have ripped you.”
  • Nuke: “Can’t you even let me enjoy the moment?”
  • Crash: “The moment’s over.”

In Apollo 13, reenacting a real-life event, the flight director (Ed Harris) asked, “What do we have on the spacecraft that works?” The perfect question, even though a major crisis had developed and a solution to the problem had to be found and worked out, right now.

When I was on Denali in 1986, we heard a story illustrating the importance of details. A woman climber had her safety harness fastened under her parka. The best and safest practice is to have it on over everything. She fell into a crevasse, broke her nose and drowned in her own blood because the parka had been pulled up around her face by the harness, while she was hanging there. Not much point in emphasizing how beautiful the climb had been up to then, is there? At least not in that terrible moment.

Forty years later, I get it. I’m grateful for the lesson about striving for excellence. It’s a badge of honor that I was there, painful as it was.

The music director of the men’s choir with which I sang in college (second tenor) stopped us only a few measures from the end of a song in a concert. It was an admittedly difficult one, in Russian. “Gospodi Pomiluj” or “Lord, Have Mercy,” and we just didn’t bring it home. We didn’t stick the landing. He started us from the beginning and then stopped us once again in almost the same place. In restaurant terms, we were in the weeds. We finally made it through acceptably, but were seriously shaken and chastened. We were a world-class ensemble, which went on tours to Europe. No matter, we were still learning.

Like Nuke, I remember thinking “What about all the other songs that were great? What about all the other notes we nailed? Why dwell on what didn’t work? WTF?”

Forty years later, I get it. I’m grateful for the lesson about striving for excellence. It’s a badge of honor that I was there, painful as it was.

CS Lewis once remarked that you say soft things to weaklings and fools. It seems clear that there is a place for exactitude and details and getting it right and fixing what ain’t working.

Yet, where is the place for acknowledging the good and what works and all the blessings? Where is the place for optimism? Or is that a fool’s errand?

Here, I follow the lead of the late George Leonard, Aikido sensei and author of Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment:

Consider a common view of the optimist: a shallow, insipid fool, one who refuses to acknowledge the pain and grief and suffering that has dogged our steps from the beginning of history, one who looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, one who doesn’t know what the score is. The word itself brings to mind such characters as the muddle-headed Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, who dances through life repeating a phrase coined by the philosopher Leibniz: “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

The true optimist is someone who tends to operate on the assumption that things will work out positively; the true pessimist takes the opposing point of view. At best, the true optimist acts on his or her assumption of positive outcomes, but not in denial of negative factors.
Tragedy appears to have a long-term leasehold on what is most profound in our view of the human condition. In darkness, there is a depth that tends to diminish in the light. Hope makes you vulnerable while existential despair is both fashionable and safe. The pessimist might not be happy but is never disappointed. When things go wrong he or she says, “I told you so. I knew all along it wouldn’t work.” To sum it up, optimism is uncool.

There is a path here, a good and worthy path. Eight years of daily gratitude work and writing has taught me that, at least. It is masculine, it is muscular, it is human, it is rich, it is rewarding, and it is difficult.