The case for optimism


Flowers outside Maxwell Place, the university president’s house, begin to bloom on Friday, April 10, 2020, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Luke Schlake

Remember last year? Everyone stayed healthy, school was a hell of a good time and “Gangnam Style” broke the internet.

Oh. Wait. That was 2012. 

Remember last year? Last year sucked.

I assume (with little supporting evidence) that this year will prove to be better than last, but it’s a toss-up. The Delta variant could go haywire, classes may be thrown back onto Zoom, and President Capilouto may send us even more emails than he did last year.

I have no idea when the next pandemic will ravage the globe, when the next Capitol riot will happen or when the Willy T Starbucks will once again decide to remove 99 percent of its seating (my word, that was annoying). So, I’ll hold my judgement. But here’s what’s not uncertain: we will all experience some degree of pain and suffering in the next 365 days.

I promise this piece is about optimism. But to get there, we must think counterintuitively. The first step to optimism is giving a warm welcome to hell.

Someone once said, “Life is suffering.” That seems terribly dull to me (life is a whole lot of other things too), but the point is this: everyone, inevitably, suffers. 

It’s a funny thing then that we seem so surprised when things go wrong. 

“Oh my!” We say. “Where did this come from? Why am I suddenly experiencing pain and suffering? This wasn’t part of the contract!” The bad circumstances of life seem to always catch us by surprise. 

Why then, are we not surprised when good things happen?

The core issue is that by default we expect things to go right. We subconsciously expect order and regularity and good things to generally happen. I expect my professors to show up to class, I expect my loved ones to survive the pandemic, and I expect that a good day today probably means a good day tomorrow. So when the bad things happen (and they will), we are left bitterly disappointed. It wasn’t part of our plan.

But what if, instead, we expected things to go wrong? What if we expected pain? What if we expected suffering? What if we expected to have lost and have loss, to have nothing? What if, consequently, order and regularity and good things were pleasant and astonishing surprises?

Instead of expecting things to go right, expect them to go terribly wrong. Start with nothing, and discover you’re the richest person on Earth. Start with: “Holy crap, I’m alive!” That’s so wild and exciting and crazy. And if you’re doing it right, it may take you a while to even get anywhere beyond that thought. Your own existence is such an overwhelming reality that it should stop you in your tracks. Plato claimed that the beginning of philosophy is wonder, and maybe the same is true for happiness: wonder and astonishment first at your own existence. 

Practice being surprised at the good and start greeting the bad like an old friend. Be delightfully surprised you get to spend the holiday with your family. Be delightfully surprised your body is still functioning. Be delightfully surprised your computer works. Be delightfully surprised you haven’t lost your water bottle. Out of the 12 billion things that could have gone wrong, it’s almost a miracle that a few of those things didn’t. 

Maybe this whole idea can be mocked as “naïve optimism.” I imagine there are a few naysayers perusing the paper today who would claim that we are not in fact in any reasonably “good” existence. Life, they’d say, is bad, terrible and of little worth. Pain and suffering are overwhelming, and anticipating them doesn’t ease the discomfort. To some extent, they are right. There is suffering so profound in the world that even our best attempts at redemption pale in comparison. 

To quote the musical Hamilton, “There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is suffering too terrible to name.” 

But these naysayers (usually ourselves) fail to acknowledge their own presuppositions: the “naïve” expectations that things will go right, that COVID won’t happen, that people we love won’t die, and that Capilouto won’t send us page-long emails. Why shouldn’t we expect those things to happen? No one promised us rainbows and butterflies when we popped out of the womb. There seems no reasonable explanation for why good should be expected more than bad. 

So, be delightfully surprised by the good and a little less surprised by the bad. It’ll work against your human nature but all for the better

Yes, life sucks. But the irony is, when we begin to expect it to, we’re freed to be wildly optimistic