History encourages optimists

October 23, 2023 3:00 am

Sunrise, a time for optimism. (Neal Herbert/National Park Service)

If truth is the first casualty of war, the loss of hope surely runs a close second.

As war now diminishes us on at least two fronts and expectations for peace dim further, a genuine sadness permeates our days. Adding to the malaise is dysfunction permeating our politics and the stench of intolerance, bigotry and hate wafting through our lives. So what chance does hopefulness have?

Perhaps I’m a fool on an errand or simply a fool, but I remain optimistic. 

And squarely in the minority. Hope may indeed be feathered and audacious, but its supply lines are running thin, according to a recent Pew Research report. We are pessimistic about the future: specifically our moral and ethical behavior, 63% pessimistic to 16% optimistic; our odds of reaching racial equality, 44% to 28%; or how we see our educational system faring in the years ahead, 59% to 20%. 

We are a little rosier about detente and the institution of marriage, but on the other big questions, Americans’ hope is clearly upside down. Global optimism, while still running strong at 65%, took a 12% positivity header in 2022 according to the researchers at Ipsos.

I sometimes cast a wary eye on polls and surveys, but the happy/unhappy totals of these numbers weigh heavily. Especially since they were compiled before terrorists lit a fuse in Israel and members of the GOP House conference confirmed they could make things happen but had no idea how to make them work.

In short, many of us see a fractured future … or at least developing serious cracks where stability once stood.

I see it differently. My optimism is neither cockeyed nor confounding nor Pollyannish. Like you, I abhor war, political dysfunction and bigotry, but we’ve seen the power of reconciliation and redemption change the world … or at least give it a shot to right itself.

That said, I’m also aware of and alarmed at the serious fissures that have appeared in our institutions, our communications and our fidelity to the truth and the mechanisms by which to ascertain it.

Still, the world struggles, horrified at the murderous evil perpetrated by Hamas, which is bent on the destruction of Israel but also, by its terrorism, the innocents of Gaza. As combatants descend further into violence in the Middle East and Ukraine, we are once again reminded of the price and waste of war, an extension of failed political policies and thinking.

While those conflagrations burn, the House of Representatives remains without an elected speaker, not only a constitutional officer but also third in line to the presidency. Two Nebraska congressmen most recently supported Ohioan Jim Jordan for the big gavel. In 16 years, Jordan has been a disruptive force in Congress, a flame thrower without a single piece of legislation to his credit and an ardent election denier. Worse, he’s saddled with the scent of an insurrection insider. This is the best we can do? A Jordan speakership would have been a new low water mark for the American ship of state.

Compounding our day-to-day reality, Americans also find themselves in an epidemic of loneliness, dissipating our physical and mental health and surely working against optimism as well. The surgeon general has issued an advisory, pointing to research that indicates nearly half of us have three or fewer friends, a decrease of 50% of what it was 30 years ago. For young people it’s worse. They spend 70% less face-to-face time with friends than they did in 1990.

Even amid war, rudderless, political upheaval and a more isolated, unhealthy population, I have some hope. 

Here’s why: We’ve been here before. Not the exact events and to be sure these are dark days. Consider, however, in the last century we’ve weathered and are still surviving a Great Depression, a world war, Vietnam and its aftermath, the 9/11 attacks on our soil and soul and a rise in domestic facism. And we have, in some instances, been stronger, more resolved afterward.

Kintsugi is a 400-year-old Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery by putting the pieces back together with gold. The result is a new piece of art with flaws and imperfections yet stronger and more beautiful than before. Kintsugi can work in a world spinning in new fire. But first we have to embrace the idea that it can be repaired and be even better than it was before. Otherwise we remain forever broken.

Yes, I, too, am sick of inhumanity, dysfunction and despair.

Yet, I remain optimistic.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.