I love hanging out with my dad; perhaps we seem a matched set, even, with our lanky limbs and prominent noses, his hair still as blonde at 64 as it is in my mother’s stories of first meeting him at age 17. Who else shares my love of Sauerkraut and Swiss chard and get as excited about a new item at Trader Joe’s as I do (four kinds of salt in a box, anyone?)? And then we can talk books, art, and the Holocaust that shaped our family, and still come away laughing
But he’s a pragmatist, too, ever the Devil’s Advocate. If I say up, he turns a frown. When I said “writer” lo those years ago, he asked, “lawyer?” He has always looked to the future with the tense-shouldered gaze of one who waits for the delivery of bad news. What you might call a pessimist.
I’m convinced an optimist like me is made by resisting the burdens of pessimism. And what is pessimism, really, but an attempt to stave off disappointment. You might say the pessimist doesn’t feel there’s much room for hope, doesn’t want to risk the possibility. And it makes sense in light of my father’s upbringing.
My dad grew up as the son of a man for whom hope was a luxury. Opa (and Oma) made it out of Germany to Palestine just in the nick of time, a couple of years before Hitler’s “final solution,” but Opa and his wife never saw their parents again. He only learned of their fate by the gaping silence, a cessation of letters, which was explained, with the thud of a stone hitting the bottom of a well, at the end of the war. The last few letters from Opa’s father begged his penniless son to help him out of Germany, but there was nothing Opa could do as little more than a farmer and gardener on a Kibbutz in the chaotic transition of the war to found the State of Israel. Opa’s philosophy aligned with Nike’s “Just do it,” minus all the colorful athletes drinking Gatorade to illustrate. He wasn’t coming from some American standard of entrepreneurship but from the practical school of: You do it because it must get done. No one else will do it for you. And, more certainly: you do it to survive.
Survivors know that you can indeed overcome terrible things and still live a life of meaning. It’s this indelible spirit of survival, like the funny little broccoli plant in my garden that survived first frost then drought, that is the root of optimism. I firmly believe you can learn more about optimism from survivors of trauma than those who live in safe anticipation.
And how do survivors survive terrible things? One tiny little window of hope at a time. Think about Anne Frank and her diary—as a writer I believe she used that journal as an escape from that cramped room and the greater threat that lurked outside its walls. Optimism, then, is a way of looking for these windows of hope in the midst of our challenges. Even my father, “the pessimist,” thrills to a new author event at Book Passage or that weirdly perfect little item that appears at Trader Joe’s. And even still, my Opa, a man raised not to waste time on a thing like hope (indeed the Visa to bring the family to the United States, for which my Oma urged him to apply, took almost a decade to come through—he could not bother with hoping,) took great pleasure in the arts. A symphony at Lincoln Center, a new art show at the Met, a tour through the time-damp tapestries of Cloisters or the dense, otherworldly glass of the Tiffany museum gave him deep pleasure and he foisted those pleasures upon me when I visited every summer.
Optimism increases the more you seek it. Those glimmers of light require hunting down, and then you must widen those cracks where you find them. We may not all suffer the horrible reality of Anne Frank, but I do believe we are all locked in seemingly inescapable rooms of our own.
Over the years, as a child who made lists, plans and rituals that brought with them a euphoric head rush once the ink unfurled on the page, an endorphin driven ebbing of tight shoulders and clenched breath, I realized that I have made a science of having something to look forward to, such that now, even if I haven’t made an event for myself, I find one. My husband laughs at my love of any ritual, no matter how small: the way we go out for tacos after the gym on Friday nights, or just the fifteen minutes when we tangle together on the couch after work and talk about the day. But truthfully, my day is full of these little moments of joy that pull me on past stress and responsibility and worse, despair. A pot of freshly brewed black tea I get to enjoy in the silence of the house after my son has gone to school; a tiny square of chocolate dipped in peanut butter after lunch; ten minutes to slip into a book. Thus, the making of an optimist.
Optimism, then, is not to be a chirruping cheerleader of sunshine and joy, of painting your life as a picture of eternal smiles, a clean house and a spouse who meets all your needs. Likewise, I will not tell you to smile or get over it, to cheer up or move on. I won’t tell you that you should feel better than you do. I won’t tell you that everything happens for reason (even if that’s what I believe). The secret to being the kind of optimist that people don’t shun, is not to use your belief in possibility as an act of hostility against those still struggling to find it themselves, but as a beacon in the dark. To say: yes, come here, I’ve got this lovely pot of tea to share, and some Swiss chard if that’s your thing. Let’s talk, laugh, even cry. Let’s follow this seam of light, tiny as it may be, and see what it opens onto.
Photo credit: The Light In The Window by MartinaK15 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.