Optimism arrives often with its best friend fear. You see, to want something is to worry about the opposite. For every cure, there’s a loss. For every acceptance letter, comes a rejection.
For this reason, the Buddha asks us to refrain from optimism — faith in avoiding suffering often leads to suffering. The pragmatist warns us that optimism without work will not provide expected results. The Baghavad Gita (a growing favorite in terms of spirituality), suggests to let go of the outcome in our decisions, “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.”
On a personal, individual level, this all feels right, but, to me, it fails in one of the most important aspects of faith, which is to hold hope in others — in their best intentions. Certainly, there’s a fine line between hope and naivete, but it is, in my estimation, rational to be optimistic, while also letting go of the outcome. In fact, I think it’s the only sane way to live.
Technologists and technophiles, the latter of which I sometimes find an uncomfortably accurate description of myself, point to the rising standard of living, the ability for humans to innovate out of past problems and the belief in human ingenuity as reasons to be long-term optimists. On this point, David Deutsch is especially an interesting thinker — he points out that humans have explanatory knowledge. This differs from biological knowledge, or our human genes, as we transfer explanatory knowledge to one another without needing to create new versions of ourselves. Richard Dawkins called such replicability in ideas as “memes,” a term that has been usurped by any number of cats.
Explanatory knowledge can have errors and disruptions and malforms rapidly — a bad idea can be iterated on or forgotten about with no real cost. The same is not true for biological knowledge. And biological knowledge has limitations in scope. There’s no real need for biological knowledge to create a way to head to outer space (at least for the species we know of), for example, but explanatory knowledge has already managed to get humans to the moon.
This speaks to optimism of a certain type — the belief that humans can and will overcome their problems by creating new tools and discovering new ways to describe our problems, of expanding our knowledge. As I understand Deutsch, he describes two fundamental parts to our world as humans — explanatory knowledge and the laws of physics.
Instead of “explanatory knowledge,” I’d prefer to consider this same capacity as humans’ ability to tell stories. It seems to me, when put this way, that so much of human endeavor is focused on getting a story right or figuring out the story of something. Lawyers dispute the story of what happened, persuading a judge or jury based on their ethos, pathos, logos… Salespeople attempt to convince a potential customer their story is worth the customer’s money. Marketing departments create brands, which are largely stories about products… And on and on.
This is important because the laws of physics are neutral to the concept of hope. Reality is indiscriminate — the same forces act on me as a bird when we jump out of a tree, but one of us is much better at flight. We as humans crave hope’s comfort. While happiness, friendship, joy, love, work, status, and life itself can appear so incredibly fragile, often because we do succumb to those immutable laws of physics, our stories make us resilient. Our stories give us optimism. Our stories inform who we are. Our stories give us hope.
In this spirit, I want to conclude this post with the story of hope from the Greek myth of Pandora. Pandora, a curious and beautiful young girl, opened a box full of everything that would plague humankind: famine, sickness, passion and more. But at the bottom of the box there was one thing that removed the fear, at least temporarily: hope.
Was hope a gift or a curse? I’d suggest it depends on what story you want to tell yourself about who you are. But I’d say hope for a better tomorrow has pushed many of us to invent something better than we know, open our eyes for another sunrise, welcome a stranger who becomes a lifelong friend, and so very much more. At times, it is hope, an amazingly small gift, that is all we have in a world that is so very, very fragile.