Tuesday night a piece of spam penetrated HLSWatch firewalls. The embedded message read: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
The spam appeared as a comment to a long-ago post. For quite a few posts, these words might be responsive and insightful. This particular post was a list of websites. The spam was just spam.
I googled the first sentence. The source was Helen Keller. Wikiquote let me know that Keller also wrote, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Is this a literary cyberattack, dissing security and promoting a Pollyannish optimism?
Pollyanna is a fictional character from early 20th Century popular American literature. Confronted with a range of real problems — including poverty and the death of both parents — Pollyanna persists in playing the Glad Game. “The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ’twas.”
To be a Pollyanna has come to mean someone who denies problems. But in the original series Pollyanna does not deny as much as purposefully transform. She chooses — through disciplined practice — to emphasize positive possibilities. She refuses to be a victim and is the co-author of her own reality.
My grandmother loved the Pollyanna books. I wonder if her appreciation had anything to do with being the poverty stricken daughter of one alcoholic father and the step-daughter of another? Did it have anything to do with losing a brother to battle and a brother-in-law to post-war suicide? Perhaps it was her own chronic arthritic pain or the years caring for a mother with sometimes violent dementia.
Did the theme of willful, courageous optimism help her give birth to her first child in the midst of the 1918 pandemic, raise a family in the depths of the depression, and send her eldest son off to World War II? When my grandfather lost so much in the economic transformation of the 1950s, I wonder if that was when grandma dusted off the books she had read as a working teenager (she only completed the sixth grade).
Laura Palin sent all her surviving children to college, including Northwestern and Julliard. She hosted her grandchildren in a grand house with huge meals and three decorated trees at Christmas. For over a quarter century each Saturday night she arranged flowers for the Sunday altar. She inspired many with her love, quiet courage, good humor, and positive perspective.
She was not alone. She was not even exceptional. Grandma reflected the common culture of her time and place. I could tell of dozens of “ordinary” folk who demonstrated tenacious survival, transformational attitudes, and courageous optimism in adversity. Some call it stoical. Yet there was lots of laughter and home-made ice cream and extravagantly sentimental literature, music, and religion. Grandma did not see herself as heroic. She was just trying to do the best with whatever was thrown at her.
Some think the current moment is either the worst America has seen or the eve of the worst. What of slavery, Indian genocide and Japanese internment? What of “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” What of our murderous civil war? What of the threat we faced in World War II and a 40 year long Cold War? Was three generations of separate-but-equal the best of all possible times? Are our current cultural divisions greater than that of the late 1960s? Today is tough, but is it worse than the inflationary spiral and economic doldrums of the 1970s?
If today is our nation’s worst day, it is not the result of externalities. It is because of widespread unwillingness to engage today and tomorrow with a disciplined hope and insistent confidence. It is because we criticize and complain when we would be better served to create and give thanks.
Grandma had her bad days. We all do. I suppose a nation will have its share. At the end of a bad day she would go to bed early (she was known for staying up late) and wake with the birdsong committed to making this day a better day in the way she said her morning prayers, in the way she fixed breakfast for grandpa, in the way she wrote a thank you note for the neighbor’s gift of tomatoes, in the way she praised my childish drawing, in the way she listened patiently to her sad friend on the corner. Taken together I wonder if these are not examples of the Way.
Other than living in Illinois, grandma did not have much in common with David Foster Wallace, but in his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College graduates, he articulates the Tao my grandmother lived:
The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
My grandmother and most of her generation lived this sort of disciplined creative life. Wallace and I talk and write about it better than we live it. In September 2008, despite — even because of — his exquisite ability to describe reality, Wallace killed himself. He was unwilling to go to bed early and begin a new day.
I am concerned our nation is choosing Wallace’s way, rather than my grandmother’s. America needs a sound nights sleep. We need to awaken refreshed and ready to each do our bit and our best with whatever is thrown our way.
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”