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Optimism is a Moral Choice

We can model resilience in uncertainty.

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

The whiplash just keeps coming. Covid. Climate Change. Local Disasters. Global Instability. Riots. War.

Those of us with lived experience — we who are older — have both the opportunity and responsibility to model resilience, and faith in the future.

When Covid first changed our daily lives, I did not respond sanguinely. I despaired. Many of us did.

We renegotiated daily life to incorporate isolation and a sense of powerlessness. It is the feeling I could do nothing that was most difficult. Perhaps it was or is, for you, too. Even our physical presentations felt depressing — longer hair, color growing out to gray, sweatpants.

Toxic positivity is real. I remember the “nothing bad can happen” cloak of adolescence. I wore it. My kids did, too, and we all had youthful consequences.

I have succumbed to fear, recently, in the comfort of my living room. Maybe you have, too.

One of my touchstones is the Stockdale Paradox.

This recipe for resilience is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the military officer who spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. The prisoners of war did not know from day to day what to expect. They were tortured. And he and others –not everyone — survived. He went home after eight years.

He owed his survival to holding the cold hard reality, uncertainty in one hand, and faith in the future in the other. He said that those who did not survive were the optimists — “we’ll be home by Christmas” thinking, who then despaired when Christmases came and went.

I would quibble with the word optimism, or maybe I just understand it differently. Let’s define optimism as hope in the face of facts.

I just watched Bending the Arc on Netflix, the documentary about Partners in Health, the global NGO co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and his then young colleagues. Dr. Farmer died this week, so I watched the documentary in memoriam. He resisted, with his colleagues, the notion that poor people and poor countries couldn’t afford access to necessary pharmaceuticals and health care.

They challenged the status quo and brought down the cost of pharmaceuticals. They developed systems of health care in poor countries that would be sustainable. Health care systems were built on community health workers who accompanied their fellow citizens in best health practices. They modeled, comforted, cajoled better behavior, and believed in their peers, their partners.

The country of Rwanda has been devastated by genocide. The government invited Partners in Health to develop a system of health care.

Like any change that impacts both the individual and the systems of care delivery, the work took place daily, and accumulated success over time. It was never easy. My favorite quotation from the documentary: “Optimism is a moral choice.”

When I have talked to friends during these last two years, we have addressed the powerlessness head-on. We can still bear witness. We can still model. We have survived a lot to get here, at this point in life.

Our children may have participated in demonstrations for Black Lives Matter or banged pots and pans to honor workers during Covid or may have done what they could in their way, too. We can admire them.

We are a generational bridge.

My grandparents’ generation were immigrants, sailing an ocean in steerage to start in a new country with nothing. My parents’ generation lived through the Depression and the Second World War.

We may have been empowered by participating in the activist years of the 60s, the various movements — civil rights, feminism, anti-war, LGBTQ.

Maybe we expected to kick back, travel, enjoy the benefits of our 401(k)s.

But our work is not over. We can be the rocks for the generations behind us. We can seek out support and be a support to each other. We can offer examples of survival within our human frailty and shortcomings. My grandmother was born in the 19th century. My grandchild might live into the 22nd century. That’s a long bridge. It’s a lot of stories.

We can do what we can do, however small.

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2 Responses

  1. Jane
    | Reply

    I’m reminded of the advice to “do what you can with what you’ve got where you are.” Teddy Roosevelt, I think.

  2. Keta McCarthy
    | Reply

    Health care is a human right, right? And Paul Farmer, to me, is a modern saint. Thanks for the reminder and tip for the Netflix documentary, Sharon.

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