In Defense of Optimism

I entered into a conversation recently that began around Kafka and ended somewhere to the left of me defending the concept of hope in the face of what was purportedly a deterministic universe.

I don’t know that I believe the universe has been determined, and even if it were, I don’t necessarily think that excludes the idea of hope.

I wrote a short story once called “The Year of Internal Optimism” which among other things was about the ability of animals – human beings included – to continue even when it seems that the universe does not wish them to continue.

This belief in the power of hope started long ago, probably around the time when I read “The Lord of the Rings” for the first time as a ten-year-old. What struck me most was the constant thread of hope that carried the characters through the worst of situations. There is a line from the “Return of the King” when Sam and Frodo are alone in the depths of Mordor and Sam looks up.

“There, peeping among the cloud – wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” 

This thought has carried me through some dark times indeed.

It is now almost ten years since my first suicide attempt. The memory of it is both dizzying and heartbreaking. When I think of it now, I feel grateful and devastated and above all hopeful.

At seventeen, I could not imagine all the life I had still to experience: I thought that was the end of the road.

In the ten years that have passed I went to college, traveled through New Zealand, visited Tolkien’s grave, saw my short stories make it to publication, met new and wonderful people, fell in and out of love, moved to California, and ate a whole stick of butter in under ten minutes.

The world is stranger and more wonderful than I had the capacity to imagine at that time. I am actively cultivating that capacity now.

Because that to me is hope: the ability to imagine a better future. It doesn’t matter to me whether this possibility is a part of a deterministic universe or not. It doesn’t matter if this is free will or not. I’m still able to imagine a better future and it keeps me going in the face of depression and despair.

And I am aware that this trend is not unique to me alone.

I like to consume and critique narratives across all genres and mediums. I noted in the early 2000s that the United States had become enamored of superheroes. I saw this as a reflection of the advent of 9/11. After the devastation it caused, we wanted someone to swoop in and make everything right. The feeling that, in part, led to the election of Obama, a candidate who literally ran on the platform of hope. We saw Obama as the magical individual who would single-handedly swoop in and save us.

Then came the inevitable failure of this belief and in response a swerve towards post-apocalyptic narratives. I first started to notice this trend somewhere around 2012-2014 when I first saw “Cabin in the Woods” and “The World’s End”. Narratives started to ask the question: will we really be saved? If not, what happens then? Which led to our current belief that the world is fucked. Inevitably and irrevocably fucked. I see this reflected again in the 2017 election from hell and the continued Armageddon-laden narratives in our television, films, and books.

The pendulum swings, though, and what I expect and hope and am working to see happen is a return to the power of imagination and hope. I expect to see the birth of a strange new world. I anticipate the arrival of new narratives that not only challenge and destroy the corrupt systems that have long held us, but which also paint a picture of alternatives. I believe this will be seen not in narratives that applaud the success of one single powerful individual, but in the strength and diversity of communities.

My therapist told me once that whenever my next relationship came along (and I’m still waiting patiently by the way) that it would by necessity be completely different from all the relationships I’ve had before. That’s how I see the world moving forward. It will need to be completely different from what it has been in the past.

I mean this in terms of politics, inter-personal relationships, economy, environmental practices, art creation, and everyday life. I know there are so many people already working to make this strange new world a reality, and I am doing my best to write it into creation as well.

The world will be infinitely stranger and more wonderful than we could have imagined ten years ago, and I hope we will have the capacity to continue imagining that now.

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