(Today I saw a FB post about an interview with Leonard Bernstein. In it, it made clear Bernstein’s feeling that hope is the best weapon to conquer cynicism. It reminded me of my post from five years ago. Perhaps you missed it. I like it because it reminds me of my mother.)
by Ron Steelman
Sometimes life can wear you out, beat you up, and leave you sittin’ by the side of the road. You’re down in the dumps. You’re wonderin’ just how you’re gonna keep smilin’ and where you’re gonna find the will to stand up, dust yourself off and get back on that road again. But right then, somethin’ unexpected happens. Somethin’ you never contemplated happens right on cue. That’s right. It starts to pour down rain! So now you’re sittin’ there in the mud. Oh, thank you, big machine of random cosmic timing. I think we’ve all been there at one time or another, feeling like life couldn’t get any worse. At times like this you just want to roll up into a little ball and crawl under a rock.
In honor of my mother I’ve always tried to be an optimist. She woke up every day with enough cockeyed optimism to give everyone in our family a double dose to start out the day. We all laughed at her dogged determination to create a happy little party, but every morning she distracted us from our worries, coaxed smiles onto our faces. I want my Mommy now!
Getting older though has taken a toll on my optimism, especially given all the things we’ve lived through in recent years. So many people and events in our world have left me somewhat discouraged. At times I feel like I’m teetering on the abyss of cynicism. I really don’t want to become a cynic, though. Cynicism is so cheap and easy. One simply has to be negative and snide about everything. I will continue to be a skeptic, just not a cynic — for believing that selfishness is the only thing that motivates human actions does not sync with my philosophy of life.
Luckily, in my quest to find something to hang on to, something between cockeyed optimism and cynicism, I discovered HOPE.
In 1989 Vaclav Havel, writer and dramatist and the first President of the Czech Republic, wrote: “Hope is an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced. . . Hope is not the willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
I think I understand now why hope is one of the three themes of the new Humanist holiday, HumanLight: reason, compassion, and hope. Hope gives us a clearer perspective on reason, and it certainly informs our commitment to compassion. I do love my Mother’s cockeyed optimism, yet I think it’s time now for a more mature hopefulness. I am focusing my hope on the goal of Humanism, which is to “lead an ethical life that aspires to the greater good of humanity.” That’s the kind of thing that’s worth hoping for, because as Mr. Havel said, it “. . .makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
So the next time you’re sittin’ there in the mud, I hope you can summon the hope you need to pick yourself up and get on down that road.
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(originally published for the HumanLight essay contest, December, 2009)