Watching Planet Earth, I feel some tightness in my chest. The baby caribou is about to be eaten. Though I know it has to happen, and I do feel ultimately content with this fact. It would be a foolish thing to complain about, death, a necessary weather.
Watching Planet Earth, I could have sworn the baby caribou sat down on its own as soon as the wolf caught its tail, that I witnessed one second, two seconds where the wolf’s mouth let go as it transitioned toward the body of the baby caribou, the body it was about to devour, the meat of it, one second or two seconds in which the baby could have struggled or scampered or tried to get away. One second or two seconds during which it sat patiently, its legs folded neatly beneath it. Death, a slow unavoidable thing.
What do we know about the scales of living and dying? Where does preference end and interference begin?
I want to think about the ways that optimism can be a toxic force, a lens through which we refuse to see certain lived realities. You can’t be optimistic in the face of an ice age, or without assuming that any occurrence of diverging circumstances is an opportunity for shuffling and then filtering and then lining up. Easily ordered, how a good attitude makes everything feel equivalent.
Human nature is a blessing until it is a contradiction until it is a fact.
Optimism, whether I lay my eyes on the natural or the manmade, creates a perspective that values hand-holding no matter the state of things. I am suspicious of people who can hold hands at any given moment, of the ability to act shocked for 20, 30 seconds upon the delivery of bad news, skilled at pretending to lose one’s appetite only to quickly recover, to proceed with emptying the plate of food before you. To pretend that devouring is the same thing as devotion.
Most of us have something we’d like to wolf down more of, if not today then soon.
It feels bad to consider what the underbelly of optimistic denial may be, the deeper foundation of our habitual business as usual selves: that most of us have unlearned or never learned how to be content with any semblance of natural life cycles. That people tend to conceive of themselves as bigger than naturally-occurring shapes. That people are content with the wrong things—manmade death, growth unrestricted, a silver lining on the proudest of good intentions gone wrong.
Human achievement is a different kind of shape altogether.
What I mean to suggest is that optimism limits the types of realities that can exist simultaneously. I can’t be optimistic without first ignoring entire ecosystems, living and dying around me.
Ecosystems are made up of living and non-living things working together to form a community. The dead baby caribou is the least of my non-living concerns. We confuse death with dying, ignore the importance of the former and our complicity with the latter; and we limit the perceived outcome of our actions to that which can be immediately witnessed, while still refusing to witness certain urgencies. Our categories are tangled up entirely.
I check an invisible square on every application I sign, every loan I agree to, every check that I cash, secretly confessing to my lack of optimism but never voicing it to my co-workers, my acquaintances, in some cases even my family, for fear of being misunderstood. The fear of being diagnosed as an intrusion, or a traitor, or a wolf. I change my name and try to avoid looking sad in public.
But I am an American and have learned to eat dessert regardless. To lose my appetite only in metaphor. In soundbite. I can turn to things like faith and religion, or the church of positivity, in order to believe that something more valuable exists besides the people dying far away from my line of sight, in order to re-focus the metaphor of myself in accordance with a more tangible ideal. That I could exploit the burgeoning culture of self-care by focusing on the singular ecosystem of me, and sacrifice even my own biodiversity so that I may achieve some semblance of stability. Not balance, just my body: flat on the ground, everything in arm’s reach. Balance would mean shared stability, something long-term, gratified as often as it isn’t.
Balance is scary because it makes space for everything, including the underbelly of my own personal achievement, of my happiness and optimism. That there will be good and bad days, that success and happiness are not linear monuments but fleeting, impulsive occasions. That there are good reasons to be sad, or cold, or delayed; that discomfort could be a natural, necessary experience.
My purpose here is a gut-feeling—unacademic, influenced by poor readings of Sartre and Woolf as much as a childhood of learned anxiety—that optimism is a white-washing. Is a toxic manifestation. Is a misguided belief that happiness is supposed to be a static state, more stable than any other human feeling—sadness, discomfort, anger—and that the ability of those with privilege to manufacture a consistent happiness, the straight line of an American Dream turned reality, only makes the instability of living even less stable, even shakier, for those who already face more struggle than the rest. Nobody’s happiness is supposed to be consistent. Trees die, fruit goes away for months at a time. We wipe out natural balances in the face of the concept of Happiness, of having everything we want within reach, no matter what time of the year. I have to assume it is primarily a white concept, an American concept, a consumer-based concept, though I myself am all those things and can’t be an expert at knowing much about reality outside this fact, my knowing limited by my access and my ease; can’t know about experience outside the context I’m framed by, here in my American couchstate.
Am I confusing happiness with optimism? Are they born of each other, two sides of the same coin? Or twinned concepts: hallucinated, hallucinating?
Maybe I’m depressed and don’t want to blame myself, or even my parents, or even my hometown. Maybe I just want my fluctuating and dipping and thrashing and struggling to be normal. It is perhaps my own American Dream: to confirm, in the shape of a glorifying gesture, that there’s nothing unusual about feeling this bad. It’s optimism you need to watch out for, says my hardest of hard feelings.
Recently, I paid to have my cat’s teeth cleaned. Who can afford to detach?
Optimism helped me buy groceries after Philando Castile was shot, bled to death. After Michael Brown. After Stephon Clark. There are so many videos to watch online, such little time for accounting. But optimism says: it will get better, my arms crossed near my chest, and so I count on a thing as if it were true. Better. Mostly, I have to ignore things in order to feel optimistic, and it is optimism itself that lets me ignore this fact, too.
Optimism lets us build our houses where earthquakes and tsunamis are bound to happen. Because my American personal achievement tells me that if I want to live somewhere, I should. That the weather ought to accommodate me, my American worth and the large house that will manifest my metaphors. It is a big white square: not light, though blinding.
More often than not, my writing is never what I want it to be. What I find myself wanting, with full predictability, is for my writing to be something that it never is.
Even now: my desire to be complex, to honor multiplicity, runs face first into my obsessive impulse to write about one specific subject. Yet I can’t even distinguish between the monument of optimism and the tired old statue that is a happy face. Surfaces or materials? I’m too sad to make an attractive argument. If attraction can be understood as cohesion, as easy consumption.
No longer do I believe in the bright side of things, that cursory coping mechanism that floats, contextless, around public encounters with difficulty. There is light, and there is also dark; you can’t turn one around for the other, and there’s no point in choosing favorites: sometimes the wolf has to eat, sometimes the caribou has to live. Nor do I believe in certain cultural narratives and norms, ones that hinge on this most famous of celebrity ideals: that the grass is always greener. It is quite different from optimism though perhaps just as dangerous, cousin in a long line of costumes. It is the accidental belief in the comparison of categories, in the inherent value of my not being somebody else, or rather, the reverse. It’s hard to talk about.
Are they opposites of each other? Umbrellas? Big unnecessary hats? Optimism: the bright side of the scratchy yellow grass beneath me. As if conservation is not its own benefit.
Optimism pretends that the bright side is always a choice, just a bootstrap away from you at any given moment. It means staring at your own grass entirely, means watering regardless of circumstance. Like how you eat dessert. Like how you manifest your smile, which glows with neon insistence.
It’s not that the grass isn’t sometimes greener. It’s our compulsion to build manicured spaces. And it’s our cultural addiction to comparisons of wealth, but not poverty.
Sometimes the grass is mud, or food insecurity, or a drone doing something other than capturing the stunning aerial shot.
Consistently, accidentally, I believe my writing would be better otherwise: smaller, or in some cases much much bigger. I accidentally believe in having a different body (smaller, much much bigger, etc.). I accidentally believe that any two trajectories can be lined up, like pies on a windowsill. I believe in comparing myself to others and feeling smaller, as if my educated American face could ever be authentically small. I believe in my anxiety but that’s only because it is real. I believe I will always be at least partially miserable and that this is the lot of the writer: the physical and emotional incapability of looking away, occasionally disguised as refusal. Disguised as courage. I seek out excuses for things. Optimism, still bleeding out of me, makes me seek the reason for something after it’s already happened.
You might even say I am nostalgic for an explanation.
You might even see the green, green grass on top of which I write this to you, here in the academy of complaint.
Humans did not invent the circle of life, though language lets us lay claim to many things. We invented All Life All The Time for the human species, the best of the best for as long as possible, though only for some. We believe in the oldest of old age—even a woman can grow old enough to become again valuable, or at least an oddity. We like things we can point out, demarcate. Chalk outlines, borders, mud flaps. We point at everything. We pretend hatred is a nuanced beast, pretend achievement means something universal, something equally accessible. We forget that equality is symbolic.
But equity: it means caring too about the state of the weather, the desert, the rocks, sand, atmospheric pressure, not to mention the animals we adorn ourselves with. Not to mention the people who are not us (the “not” being: symbolic, beside the point, and crucial).
Equity is unflattering. Freedom is most flattering in word alone. I am not optimistic about the current public state of either concept. One is invisible or often mistaken; the other, a flag. We let symbols infuse us with validity. We pat our backs and call gestures good enough. I am not optimistic enough to give anyone a high five any time soon.
All the ecosystems we are currently disrupting. Skin, reproductive organs, the need for various surfaces and sizes, adaptations we have rendered useless. Categories—invented shapes and our system of naming—interfere with the natural cycle of things.
The rain, endangered on my face, feels good, so I let it stay.
Optimism is a side-effect, a dead end, but we treat it as a starting point. It is most dangerous when it shapes the way we unfold the map, or gives us permission to leave it crumbled in our pockets, feeling good about spending money on better things, doing our part watching videos shared through social media and forgetting that change is inherently uncomfortable. Optimism believes in comfort at the expense of, that the good categories we’re born into are the ones we ought to live and die within; that if I enjoy myself, this enjoyment must mean something holistic and good about the larger world around me.
Optimism is what led me to grad school, and through the strange necessary unfolding of human experience it is the horror through which I learned to move away from the academy, the dread of academia itself, which can sometimes only be taught from within the deep uncomfortable seat of its disciplined muck. Too much optimism would have kept me in that space, fighting to solidify my stupid categories. I still recreate my boxes, my borders, in every conversation, in every attempt to unconsolidate my sensitivity; when I learn about ecosystems, when I discover authors who are not like me, or who turn out to be very much like me. When I catch myself reinforcing hateful assumptions, enacting misogyny, or complaining about the weather.
The rain drenches my papers—proof of all I’ve done so well—so I decide to undertake the invention of a system that might cage the rain or better yet, prevent it entirely. Anything to push it away from the space of my home, full of food and leisure and paper. I forget how to be a good person; I start to think maybe I should be more optimistic.
In grad school I learned how to doubt everything about myself, and this is a good skill for a person with privilege, and it was an awful place, grad school, that made me doubt even my bones, my hair, my skin. My mind. Or anything outside of it. Progress can be full of contradictions. Even history, good poems, tender loving care.
Slowly, I remember that the rain does and doesn’t need me, too, in successive rotations, until eventually I remember that the rain doesn’t actually need me at all, and I lay my body down, legs folded neatly beneath me, the rain having grabbed me by the tail.
Sometimes I panic and think I’m a bad person for not feeling optimistic. Until I remember that empathy is something else entirely. That ecosystems thrive not on blind self-belief but the active ability to interact with and care about things that have nothing to do with you. Any you. Like animals who don’t want me to pet them. Like the rain when I won’t even benefit from getting wet. Like someone whose loss of appetite is not temporary, is unrehearsed, someone who isn’t exactly sure where we go from here.
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