Notes on Optimism in Difficult Times

As ever, there is no shortage of bad news in the world.

It’s arresting. It’s aggressively marketed. It’s what everybody’s talking about. Some days, it feels like an emergency.

It’s worth pausing to ask whether this sort of news is new, and whether it’s worth paying attention to.

Being informed is one thing (and not a bad one). Being overwhelmed is another. And being overwhelmed is inimical to the kind of optimism we need to make things better.

Making things better always requires optimism — deep, abiding optimism that is informed, uncynical, and resilient against the inevitable challenges we face in real life.

Nothing ever goes all right, all the time. Our challenge, therefore, is not to hide behind either rose-colored glasses or a total surrender to cynicism. Taking ourselves off the hook isn’t brave, and it’s certainly not going to make things better.

The Romans used to say “dum spiro, spero.” “While I breathe, I hope.”

Of course, the Romans didn’t have cable news or Twitter. If breathing alone does not bring optimism, that’s understandable. In that case, though, why not try a different posture: dum laboro, spero. While I work, I hope.

Great work itself is an act of hope — and through the work, more hope tends to come.

It might not make the front pages. But not much great work ever does.