An Experiment in Optimism

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On the day I turned 30 years old, a full grown woman pooped on the floor of the bathroom at the shop I manage. (To make things crystal clear, I’m also the janitor.)

If you’re wondering if I grasped the full meaning of this event, the answer is YES. Because of course this was a sign. A few possible interpretations:

Shit happens.

You’re about to go through some shit.

Life is a lesson in cleaning up shit.

And, if I’m honest, maybe I needed this prophetic, harrowingly material reminder that all of these things are true. A disturbing birthday gift, yes, but also validation.

Not two months later, I went through a mental health break that forced me to admit that I don’t have it all figured out. Earlier that year, I had endured a relationship-severing misunderstanding at work, and in August, both of my grandmas died within two weeks of each other.

I ended 2018 with a heavy heart, an exhausted mind, and a heaping pile of...burnout.

Faith is the bird that feels the light, and sings when the dawn is still dark.

- Rabindranath Tagore

You may remember that about a year ago I posted about my inclination to define myself as melancholy, to prove my commitment to moral work by cultivating an attitude of sadness. In that piece I wrote:

Author and environmentalist Barbara Kingsolver once said that "hope is a moral imperative." I have been living by that mantra because I really believe it, but I recognize now that by framing it as an imperative, it makes it feel like obligation rather than leaning in. It makes it seem inflexible.

Earlier this year, an acquaintance I know through the shop expressed concern that I’m not more optimistic.

“But I’m hopeful,” I responded.

“You can’t have hope without optimism!” he declared.

I wasn’t sure I believed him, but I decided to take it on as a challenge.

What would it look like to cultivate optimism?

It felt trite to me at the time, to joyfully correct my pessimistic feelings, to watch the news and say to myself, “It will get better,” instead of sardonically repeating a line from a Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (a dark exploration of World War II): “So it goes.”

During this period, I was anxiously - and on a much tighter timeline than expected - applying to seminaries (I wrote one of my writing samples, from concept to footnotes, in a weekend, which is not my usual style); working with a committee on children’s ministry transitional goals; auditioning and practicing for a solo in a local Mozart performance; managing seasonal sales at work; and basically, about to have another breakdown.

And, while I kind of wanted to quit everything in one fell swoop, I was also kind of *living my best life.* Because, for the first time in a long time, I was too busy to second guess myself. Too preoccupied with living to be too in my head.

In that chaos of activity and stress and missteps - in my busy-ness I had to cancel and say no to a lot of other things - I had no choice but to give myself grace.

And more than that, I had no choice but to look up and smile at all that was going wrong and weird, but also at all of the good things I had in front of me.

The mentors who told me, “You’re going to be ok” every time I told them I couldn’t do it anymore. The dear friends who edited my writing samples and personal statements, and believed in me when I’d stopped believing in myself. My fellow parishioners and committee members at church who could find the humor in frustrating bureaucracy. My shop volunteers who screamed out their lungs on the day I got my acceptance letter, and bought me mint milkshakes and custard on 5 cent custard day. My husband who always has the power to snap me out of my sorrow and whining.

Five months into the optimism experiment, I had gotten a scholarship to the program I almost didn’t apply to because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I had the best solo performance of my life at the Mozart concert. And the children’s ministry project had culminated in a new hire.

A million other things went wrong. I let people down. I got sick three times. Friends moved away and things were broken and that relationship from last year isn’t fully healed. I still have emotional breakdowns. I still feel confused and burnt out.

I still believe that hope is a moral imperative. Without it, we can’t imagine a future that looks better than the grieving present we’re living in. But it can’t just be something I take on as a burden, a thing I stack on top of my heavy load.

I look forward because I want to, not just because I need to. And sometimes I have to work harder to convince myself that’s true. And sometimes, oftentimes, I need help.

But optimism, I’m now convinced, is a type of prayer. We breathe it in for sustenance and breathe it out so that our neighbors can breathe it in, too. It is not trite to foster joy.

It’s the hardest, best thing we will do.