Confessions of a Disappointed Optimist

My life over the past few weeks has been fraught with existential despair. Seriously. Picture someone jogging in a drab grey sweat suit through a gentle rain, running from their current doubts and worries as a sad Adele song plays over some invisible loudspeaker.

That’s been me over the past few weeks.

Except that I’m actually walking because I haven’t jogged in quite some time. And I have never exercised regularly enough to justify owning a sweat suit. And I don’t go outside if it’s raining. And my go-to sad music is a combination of Baroque opera arias and songs from a very specific point in Britney Spears’ career. But you get the picture. Existential discomfort has been assaulting me from all sides. And all because I decided long ago that I wanted to be an optimist.

Let me give you some context: When I was five years old, my mother showed me The Sound of Music. I don’t care what anyone says. This is one of the best movies ever made. It’s got everything: Julie Andrews (a.k.a. a goddess on this earth), sweeping vistas of the most beautiful alpine landscapes, rousing musical numbers, nuns. Nuns! To put it simply, five-year-old me was enthralled from the downbeat of the overture.

For me, the most influential scene in this whole movie was the one in which Julie Andrews and the kids sing “My Favorite Things.” You know the scene I’m talking about. After a long first day on the job, Julie can’t just go to bed because all the kids are afraid of the thunderstorm (even the teenagers in the group, apparently). To cheer up the children – and presumably to get them out of her bed – she sings them a cheery song about all the wonderful things in life. You know, copper kettles and that sort of thing. By the end, all the kids know the words and, together with Julie, they sing, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad!”

It was in this moment that I knew I had to be an optimist. A beautiful future unfolded before my five-year-old eyes. Was it really so simple? Whenever something was wrong, I could simply sing about it to feel better? Whenever I came across a problem in life, I could drive it out of my mind with visions of nice things like doorbells, sleigh bells, and schnitzel with noodles? That was the life for me. 

Since then, I’ve waltzed through life with an optimism rivaling that of Pollyanna (before the tree catastrophe), Charlie Brown (only an optimist would keep going for that football), or even Maria von Trapp herself (how else could she wake up each morning to chaperone seven loudly singing children). Along the way, I’ve met my fair share of realists, who always respectfully point out that if you only ever look at the world through a lens of naïve optimism, you will inevitably find disappointment somewhere on your journey. I always smile, laugh, tell them why singing about silver white winters that melt into springs will take care of that, and then move on.

Lately, though, I’m finding that the realists are right. And I’m disappointed.

I’m disappointed that the legitimacy of the CDC, which funds 26 academic institutions researching disease prevention with over $25,000 annually, is being questioned by those who simply can’t be bothered to put on a mask in public places; that the coronavirus pandemic is seen as a political issue, rather than a serious public health crisis with earth-shattering implications for marginalized factions of our society.

I’m disappointed that for many, the removal of statues honoring men who committed treason against the United States of America and made a profit by monetizing human lives is more incendiary than the murder of Black citizens at the hands of those sworn to protect all U.S. citizens.

I’m disappointed that after centuries of institutional violence against Black Americans, there are still some people who would respond to the phrase “Black lives matter” with the trope “All lives matter;” who don’t understand that’s like a teacher saying, “Actually, sweetie, all of my students matter” to the child in the class who’s been bullied since day one and is begging for anyone to see her suffering and acknowledge her worth.

I’m disappointed that, as far as I can remember, my North Carolina public school curriculum taught me a Disney-esque origin story for Thanksgiving, while I only learned about Juneteenth this year. I was twenty-five years old.

These are problems I can’t ignore by thinking about nice things like cream-colored ponies or crisp apple strudel. And that’s disappointing.

Most of all, I’m disappointed in myself for never truly taking the time to acknowledge the ways in which I – in a place of unquestionable privilege – have benefited from a system built on systemic injustice.

One of my good friends has spent her quarantine diving into genealogy and drawing up family trees for me and others in our circle of friends. I know what you’re thinking. In a world where one can rewatch Netflix favorites in a never-ending cycle (I’m looking at you, Schitt’s Creek), make bread (to be honest, I’m still not sure what a sourdough starter is), or pretend to be a rock god singing along with the cast of Hamilton, who wants to do research? Well, she’s simply a nerd that way and we love her for it.

But I digress.

After this friend shared my family tree with me, I learned that my family has lived in the U.S. for quite some time. My ancestors must have been made of sterner stuff than me because they lived through the crazy old-timey winters and I have to pretend I’m in Game of Thrones just to summon up the courage to walk to the train on a typical morning in January. For generations, my family has been around to accumulate property, middle-class wealth, and (unfortunately) hair loss. Apart from the hair loss, this accumulation set me up to live a relatively comfortable life. I never had to worry about going to bed hungry. I knew my Christmases would usually result in some exciting new acquisitions. I never even doubted that I’d have the means to get a college education. In short, I was privileged.

Conversely, lending discrimination was still legal in the United States in the early 70’s (that’s right, I mean the 1970’s; the time of ABBA, the Brady Bunch, and Jaws). That means some Black families had no access to credit, home or business ownership, or legal protection from lending discrimination or redlining until about 45 years ago.

My parents were alive in the 70’s (and never fail to remind me of it when given the chance to sing along to terribly retro music on the radio), as were the parents of most of my peers. When you compare my family’s thirteen-ish generations of middle-class wealth, property, and credit accumulation with many Black Americans’ two generations of the same, it’s ludicrous even to suggest an equal playing ground.

And I’m disappointed that I couldn’t have told you any of that this time three months ago.

My inherent privilege aside, I’m disappointed in the moments in which my unconscious racism has shown (which wasn’t cute). Though I would always have said I wasn’t racist and held no tolerance for racism in any form, my sixteen-year-old self didn’t realize why saying to my oldest friend (in spite of the color of her skin), “We all know you’re really white like the rest of us” was problematic until she bravely called me out. I didn’t realize at the time that in saying this, I was pointing out many of her most admirable qualities – her intelligence, her professionalism, her eloquence – and labeling them in my head as “white characteristics.” Unintentionally racist, but racist just the same. Every time my first instinct leads me to respond to racism by pointing the finger of blame toward others, I must remember this moment; the embarrassment and shame I felt at being called out, and the incredible grace and dignity of my friend who took the time to educate me.

It isn’t always easy to recognize your own privilege.

It’s uncomfortable.

It is, dare I say, disappointing.

But it isn’t more disappointing than realizing that, in a country which was founded on the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” (I could go on because it’s all relevant), nothing could be farther from the truth. We have not treated, nor do we treat, all citizens as if they are created equal. We live in a society that has unquestionably placed emphasis on white lives, white contributions, and white opportunities.

That is disappointing. And heinous. And cruel.

Despite all this disappointment, however, I must remain optimistic. I have to believe that we will someday have justice for Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. I have to believe that we can stop using “color blindness” as a shield, sit with the discomfort of white privilege, and begin to open the doors for change. I have to believe that the Black Lives Matter movement will cause others to examine their own privilege and complicity in a flawed system, just as they did for me.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people are capable of large-scale change. One only has to look at the environmental impact of our attempts to stop the spread of the virus. Greenhouse gas emissions fell. Air traffic-related pollutants decreased drastically. Come on, y’all. Swans and dolphins returned to the Venice canals.

Okay, that part was fake news, but it’s poetic and a nice image, so just go with me. 

I should note that I’m talking about the communal response to the pandemic before people decided that mask mandates are somehow an infringement on their rights (once racial minorities, indigenous people, the LGBTQ+ community, women, and immigrants have fundamental rights, then I’ll listen to your complaints about your mask).

Anyway, we’ve seen that our society is capable of large-scale behavioral change. I remain optimistic, therefore, that if we listen to our marginalized brothers and sisters, acknowledge our own privilege, and push for justice on every level, we can create a world in which the statement “All lives matter” just may carry some truth.

It’s an optimistic view for sure, but it’s necessary. It will be hard work, but what work is more important than this? We must put in the effort. If we do, we won’t be disappointed.

Step aside, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

Compassion, equity, freedom, and justice are a few of my favorite things.  

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Disappointed Optimist

  1. Loved this, Sully. Thank you for this well-written and meaningful content to which I strongly relate. Love you!

    Love, Kerby

    On Sun, Jul 19, 2020 at 3:48 PM Off the Syllabus wrote:

    > wsullivanhart posted: ” My life over the past few weeks has been fraught > with existential despair. Seriously. Picture someone jogging in a drab grey > sweat suit through a gentle rain, running from their current doubts and > worries as a sad Adele song plays over some invisible lou” >

    Like

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