Melissa Oltman  2.0

Optimism – Not Just for the Young Ones

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When I was a teenager, my plan was to become a journalist, and more specifically, a war correspondent. My goal was to write about the women, the children, and the civilians affected by war so powerfully and so eloquently that the world at large would take notice. “No more,” the world would say. “We cannot continue on this way and allow the innocents to be slaughtered.” And war would stop on the planet.

This year in June, I watched my oldest grandson graduate from high school, and I listened to the speeches of the class valedictorians. Proud, hopeful, and full of fire, they knew beyond a doubt that they were going to grab hold of the world they were inheriting and make it better.

The students who survived the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland rose up like phoenixes with courage and grit and set out to empower a generation to make changes to our electoral process and our society as a whole.

While feeling at once tenderly protective of the young ones, and refreshed by their energy, I am aware of a smug cynicism that sneaks into the back row of seats in my consciousness. I feel disappointed with myself for the mental smirk. I tell myself that the young, idealistic activists will become tired, and jaded, and as pessimistic as I have become. We see cynicism as a measure of maturity and wisdom, and consider optimism to be naivete.

Psychologists believe that cynicism arises from not trusting others. Fechenhauer and Dunning showed in 2010 that study participants can become more trusting if they have more practice in actually trusting other people – if they are in situations where others behave honestly and sincerely. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? No one can control how other people are going to behave.

I have often said in my own life that I don’t need to worry about trusting or not trusting anyone else, as long as I feel like I can trust my own response to whatever another person does. The burden is on me to respond in a way that matches the kind of person I want to be. Michelle Obama’s famous injunction “When they go low, we go high” is a mantra for choosing a positive response.

Our input shapes our output. I deactivated my Facebook account in the week before the midterm elections because I could tell that the constant barrage of negative posts on all sides were eroding my naturally positive demeanor and spilling over into my offline life. I became more irritable in traffic and at work. Within ten days of my social media fast, my iPhone told me I had decreased my screen time by 38 percent. I noticed I was more patient and better able to let others do their own thing without feeling the urgent need to swoop in and let them know how wrong they were.

Nomadic photographer Anne McKinnell tells us that she found it easier to see the negative things around her in her early career, but she felt that changing when she made the decision to photograph beautiful subjects like nature and wildlife. She reminds herself with each shot to look specifically for the good, and in doing so, she writes that she has begun to notice the beautiful in the rest of the world around her. She was happier, and it became a positive feedback loop of optimism and adventure.

So I find wandering back toward the sunny fields of my buoyant youth. Along with the usual daily news, I seek out writers who tell me about the heroic, the selfless, the brilliant and the generous. Bill and Melinda Gates are bringing together talent and innovation from around the world to revolutionize sanitation in places where people still sicken and die from human waste born illnesses. Americans will see a record-breaking number of women in the incoming Congress in January, as well as the first indigenous and Muslim women. I continue to be aware of the serious challenges facing us, but controlling what enters the little computer of my mind has improved my ability to confront them with confidence and courage.

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