Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.
– Helen Keller
As a teenager, I thought optimism was a personality trait. That some of us are just hard-wired to see things in a better light than others, and that I, by nature, was a pessimist.
As I grew older and got out more, I learned that this isn’t quite right. Optimism is a decision we must make anew every day—a decision to look on the bright side of things, even when the dark side looms large. It’s a battle we must fight every day, and battle we are capable of winning every time. I pick up my sword daily.
But only recently did I come to understand that optimism as a choice doesn’t go far enough. It’s a choice, yes, but it’s also more than that. It’s an obligation. It’s a duty we have to one another. It’s our job, as human beings who care about the good of those around us, to be relentless optimists. When do we really have the prerogative, anyways, to stop what we’re doing long enough to look around us and decide that the world is going down the drain? What help does such an opinion offer to those around us—to those trying to solve serious problems? What useful action-items can anyone take away from such an observation?
I remember riding bikes with my little brother a few years ago. I didn’t want to go at first. Dark clouds were building overhead. But eight-year old Grant convinced me that we wouldn’t be be gone long. “A little rain never hurt anyone,” he said. He’d been looking forward to a bike ride all day, excited that I even considered the possibility in the first place. So we set out.
Ten minutes later, a loud crack shook the ground below us. The sky lit up. Lightning struck something nearby, sending me and my brother veering off the road to the shelter of a small tree in a neighbor’s yard. The lightning picked up, louder and brighter. It struck something close by again.
The storm was getting closer. I didn’t feel safe getting back on the bike, but I didn’t want to get soaked, either.
“I’m scared,” I said, scanning the horizon. I really wasn’t too scared, but the words just kind of slipped out of my mouth. We weren’t far from home, and getting struck by lighting is extremely unlikely.
But that’s not what I said, so that’s not what Grant heard. From his perspective, I was scared, and I was the only one of us who knew anything about what it means to be out in a storm (that it’s no more dangerous than riding a bike). His face went pale. He started crying. He looked up to me, his 19-year old brother. If I was scared, sure as heck he was scared.
I immediately realized what I said and how it affected him. I changed my demeanor and told him I was only kidding, and that storms aren’t scary. He cheered up a bit, but was still apprehensive. Then I raised a fist and shouted playfully, “We’ll conquer you, storm!” Grant laughed. I hopped on my bike, told him to follow, and we were home in a matter of minutes.
I’ve never forgotten this experience because, for the first time, I realized how much people in my life might look to me for guidance, and how my negativity might leak out into the lives of people around me. I’m not special or possessive of some “natural authority,” but I realized that some people just look up to me, for whatever reason, and that what I say and what I do affects their life in sometimes very significant ways. Maybe an employee one day. Maybe a friend who thinks I’m cooler than I actually am. Maybe (definitely) my wife or my kids. Whoever it is, they’ll drink some from whatever cup I give them.
Granted, I wan’t being especially negative saying “I’m scared” because of a storm. From an eight year old’s perspective, however, that’s about the worst thing in the world. Fear is very influential in the lives of young children. But that made the lesson all the more pertinent for me: What I say, and how I say it, and who I’m saying it to, matters. It matters because people around me learn from what I do. Their attitude toward themselves, their lives, and their circumstances depend, in some small way, on how I carry myself when I’m around them.
That said, I can’t think of a worse way to be than to be a pessimist. Than to preach a gospel of fear and defeat, taking every opportunity to point out how terrible things are or how the world is filling up with bad things. How does this affect those around us? It pulls them down. It stamps out dreams. It quenches flames that may have taken years to build up. And all of these effects are intensified when we’re dealing with people who look up to us.
If you’re reading this, think about people who might look up to you. Consider being more optimistic around them, and ultimately around everyone you meet. Do it for their sake, and for the sake of everyone who’s trying to learn how to think and how to live and what to do with their lives. Do it, too, because a few of us are committed to the always-fragile belief that the future can hold great things and are working toward solutions and creations that can help make that happen for all of us.
And for those of you who might be so down and out that you can’t think of anyone who looks up to you, or of anyone who might need your optimism to keep their fire burning, think of Grant. He’s 12 now and, though a little bratty at tims, sees the world as a place full of promise. The future, in his mind, is full of fun and exciting things waiting to be uncovered. As long as he is this way, he’ll achieve great things. Please don’t be the one to pull him down, because, as we all know, it’s not easy to get back up.