Optimism Is Hard

For the last several months I’ve been trying to put into words how I felt with the coming of the new year. It finally hit me that the problem I’m having is that I actually feel kind of optimistic at the start of this year. I feel pretty uncomfortable with this—so uncomfortable in fact that my discomfort with the optimism is causing me anxiety.

There are very few times in my life I can remember feeling this optimistic. The last time I could not see clouds on my personal horizon was about four years ago. I had just settled into my new job and had bought a house, something I had previously never imagined I would do. Almost immediately, my sense of optimism and stability was shaken to its core as a stalker showed up, followed by an austerity crisis the destroyed the university where I was working, and an environmental disaster in my town. This series of events shattered nearly every part of my life.

But obviously the fact those things happened once before when I was feeling happy and settled has nothing to do with whether something similar will happen again. However I suspect this is the problem with living through traumatic events. You drag it along with you and it has the potential to ruin even the good things that happen. Because the fact is things are pretty good right now, and if I’m just scared that it will all be snatched away again, waiting for the next bad thing to happen, then I’m ruining the good things that are happening.

In the foreword to her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit describes the the difference between hope and optimism this way

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of the both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting (2016, xiv).

Solnit’s descriptions of hope throughout the book resonate deeply with my politics and activist praxis. I have no problem embracing the contradictions required of staring reality in the face and still hoping that somehow I and others can act to change the outcome. So why the difficulty feeling hopeful about my personal life?

I think what has been happening this year is that I am struggling to gain a sense of trust and control over my personal life. The struggle to accept that trust is particularly acute at a moment when I actually do feel optimistic because things are going well, but perhaps the issue is that I am growing. I am growing into the trust that I am the one has the control to act in my life. As a capable adult, I am the one who can protect myself, even when bad things do happen, as at some point, they inevitably will. But I think I am starting to accept that it will even be okay during the bad times in some way, because I can take care of myself.

Like most feminists I know, I am deeply committed to the idea that the personal is political. I am not sure if my struggle to feel comfortable with optimism in my personal life in contrast to my utopian politics is meaningful or helpful to others. I wrote this post to figure out why happiness was making me feel anxious, and I offer this reflection in the tradition of feminist personal essays in the hopes that it resonates with someone else too.

Colectivo de Arte Independiente CAIN, Puebla