Optimism with Open Eyes

 By John Kroeker, PhD

I was living in Pasadena when Mount St. Helens blew.

A friend from Oregon showed me a bottle of gray ash he had collected from a driveway-- the cataclysm seemed near in connection at that moment. It was the greatest volcanic explosion of recent times. A mountain’s worth of superheated rock raced through pristine valleys for miles, leaving nothing-- nothing but sterile gray ash. It was not that spring, nor the next, but the third spring that saw delicate green shoots appearing amidst the ash. Those shoots were the optimism of life: the mountain had stolen the present, but those tender shoots owned the future.

Optimism gets some rough treatment. Voltaire bitingly mocked it with “All is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds”. To be a “Pollyanna”, is not a good thing; we all know that such a person is dangerously naive. The hard-headed person of the world should have no truck with unrealistic views of that sort. Hmmpf.

Optimism is not cheerfulness, although they are cousins. It is not being a glass-half-full person rather than a half-empty person. The glass, by the way, is just a glass of course, and it is both full and empty and are you done with it? I’d like to put it in the dishwasher.

Optimism is not a can-do attitude (just cousins again). If you pause to consider, you will notice that optimism is not an attitude at all, which is stance, a way of being or doing; optimism is a feeling or emotion, one of the thousand emotions that color our lives. What is this feeling, the feeling that for no apparent reason, and without logical justification, we feel a sort of ticklish joy at a future prospect? We feel certain that an outcome will-- come out, and come out well.

Optimism is an emotion about the future, quite different from thankfulness, which bows to the past and acknowledges the present. That optimism is a feeling-for-no-reason gives us a clue that this emotion, like courage and love, is to be found in that mysterious region we call the heart. This where we can seek and cultivate optimism-- we find there the stream; we widen its banks; we listen for its murmur.

Yes, there is pessimism too, a dark stream. Pessimism is equally an emotion, and a strong one, and it warns us that something must be quite wrong, like a future pain felt presently. We need these important warnings, and we need to heed them, but we just can’t thrive for long in the stream of pessimism.

And there are times that we are overwhelmed, and optimism seems gone for good. In such times we can remember that the stream of optimism is just underground, waiting to come back to the surface. Sarah, Job’s wife, says on the bare stage, when their lives are blasted, at the end of the play J.B.:

Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we’ll see by and by. . . .

--Archibald MacLeish

Heart again. Even at the end of the world, look to the heart-- it’s light will remain: “we’ll see” is that hope-for-no-reason; it is the murmur of the stream of the future in the heart.

Optimism can be cultivated, encouraged, and used. I find it is an indispensable tool for creation and for leadership. Optimism is not only compatible with a clarity of vision of the world as-it-is, but that clarity of vision is essential.:

Once a person asked me if I looked at life with a pessimistic attitude or if I was an optimist. I said, "An optimist with open eyes." Optimism is good as long as the eyes are open, but once the eyes are closed then optimism can be dangerous.
-- Hazrat Inayat Khan

We see; we judge as best we can; we use our reason, but we can at the same time hold an emotional current of optimism in the heart.

Optimism represents the spontaneous flow of love; optimism also represents trust in love. This shows that it is love trusting love which is optimism. -- Hazrat Inayat Khan

These words give us the meditation to use. Finding the breath and then the heartbeat, we feel the current of life in the breath; breathing in and out of the heart we feel the ground of being in the heart, being that now breaths the current of life. Now go deeper, the ground of being in the heart-space is the current of love, love universal, for and between and of all beings. In this current of love hold trust in love, love with abandon. What else? What else would we trust but the self-evident, ever-flowing, ever-creating life-love at the root of all hearts? Hold and remember this love trusting love, it will be your guide.

“Love trusting love” is so evocative. Those pale, tender shoots of life on Mount St. Helens had nothing but love of life to sustain them, and the trust in life and love, a billion years of the unconquerable yearning of life wagering a delicate leaf against gray desolation. This is the power of the stream of optimism.

-- John Kroeker

Dr. Kroeker received his doctorate in neurophysiology from Cornell University, researched neuromathematics at CalTech, and became an entrepreneur applying speech recognition to health care services. He is currently researching sound-imaging in dolphins and sits on the Board of Directors at iamHeart.