Against the backdrop of challenging circumstances—for example, a global pandemic and massive social unrest—two attitudes tend to prevail. Some people choose to bury their heads in the sand, delude themselves, or express an over-the-top pollyanna outlook. Other people choose to be entirely pessimistic and despairing. Both of these attitudes are easy to adopt. Neither are particularly helpful.
They are easy to adopt because they absolve the person who is adopting them of taking action. The former denies anything is wrong altogether; if nothing is wrong, there is nothing to worry about, nothing you need to do differently. The latter takes such a grim stance that it basically says any action would be pointless, so why bother. It carries an inertia that barrels towards helplessness and nihilism.
But in between these two prevailing attitudes—heads in the sand, delusion, over-the-top pollyanna on the one hand; pessimism and despair on the other—lies a third way: wise hope and wise action. This approach accepts and sees clearly a challenging situation for what it is. And then it says: Well, this is what is happening right now, so let’s see what I can control and I might as well do the best I can.
Wise hope and wise action is akin to something that my good friend Emily Esfahani Smith calls “tragic optimism” (a term first coined by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst). Tragic optimism, Esfahani Smith writes, “is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.”
People who demonstrate tragic optimism, Esfahani Smith explains, feel the same, and sometimes even more, pain as those who become pessimistic and despairing. The difference is that tragic optimists do the hard work of holding that pain and moving forward anyways. As a result, they may be less likely to experience lasting psychological distress, and more likely to bring about the type of change they wish to see.
Unfortunately—but also unsurprisingly; after all, we live in an era of quick and easy takes—the culture right now is latching onto the extremes. There are the people who are acting like nothing is wrong—getting in perfect workouts, going on boat trips, getting drunk in packed bars, and documenting it all on social media to boot. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who only want to point out the worst in everything and everyone. To this latter cohort, any sort of hope is taken as an offense, sometimes even a cancelable one.
That’s why it is important to remember that in between these two rote reactions to challenge, there is a more useful, albeit harder, response: that of wise hope and wise action. You probably won’t embody wise hope and wise action every time and that’s okay. But the more you can say, “Well, this is what is happening right now, so let’s see what I can control and I might as well do the best I can,” the better—for you and for everyone you touch.
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