Where are all the cockeyed optimists? Where have all the Pollyannas gone? The Hopeful Hannahs? (So I made that one up.) Where is Voltaire’s ridiculous Pangloss, who would always insist that all was for the best in this best of possible worlds?
The chips are down in these depressed times. The only chips right now seem to be in the hands of Steve Jobs.
There have been many rapid changes. Cockeyed optimists don’t seem so cockeyed now that the world begins to look pretty grim, and the grey specter of hopelessness begins to set in. Perhaps we should not have snickered so quickly at the incessantly positive-thinking people who annoyed us so much not so long ago. They have taken their phones off the hook, suspended their tweeting, and retreated to parts unknown.
I should have been nicer to the rose-colored-glasses-wearing set. I should not have said snide things about those who really believe that “everything is going to be all right.” Truth is, being gloomy in a gloomy time is not as interesting as it once was. Being a crepe-hanger is acceptable as long as things are going fairly well with everyone around me. But now, holy smokes. Things have changed. The City, this country, the world is in a lot of trouble. Hideous as it is to contemplate, I am forced to become a man of cheerier complexion. I only wonder how long I can pull this off before you see right through me. I’ll still wear my glasses, but the ones with jaundice-colored lenses I will leave behind for now.
My older brother, Jimmy, used to say to me – even at a young, tender age – “Bruce, the only time you’re amused is when you say something dark, sardonic, or bleak.” Hmmm. I’m afraid that’s true. Believe me, I wish I could adopt that expression from the wise elders of the Eastern World: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” Now, that’s a code of conduct.
Yes, I’d like to adopt it, but that’s tough for a newspaper columnist. Readers seem to love the fray – the mudslinging, the personal attack, the scandals, the gossip. None of these scurrilous items has to be kind. They certainly are not necessary, and, (we know), not always all that true. (We could run it as a blind item. That way, only the innocent remain unprotected.) That’s sardonic, Bruce. Bleak. Dark.
Aw, gee. There I go again. I meant to keep this essay redemptive, dripping with optimism, cockeyed and all. Not only do I consider it a public service to be helpful, and hopeful, it might do me a world of good.
So I take the higher ground, the loftier climes. Well, I hope I do from now on. I’ve tossed this idea around a bit over the years. But it’s much easier to play the Messenger of Doom. The jokes are cheaper. The laughs are easier. But if the real Pollyannas and the Panglossians are running out on us, what can we do?
I am heartened to hear about how people are giving so generously to the beleaguered people of Haiti in the weeks that follow that terrible earthquake. It’s a decent thing to do. I also know that we Americans are very nervous about the way things are going here. Assisting others not only is right, it feels good, and is, in its way, a distraction. It’s good therapy for us, too. So be it. Here in San Francisco, we heard about how survivors were pulled from the rubble in Port-au-Prince as long as two weeks after the earthquake. Many of us must have recalled Buck Helm, who was buried in the concrete collapse of the Cypress Freeway structure in Oakland after the Loma Prieta quake 20 years ago. He had been trapped for 90 hours. Buck, a 57-year-old longshoreman, was tough guy personified. His rescuers, pretty tough doctors, firefighters, cops, and emergency workers, got him out. They did not give up, though 38 others died in the Cypress collapse. I remember how our hopes hinged on Buck’s survival. In his hometown of Weaverville, in the Klamath Mountains, Buck’s name became synonymous with hope. He died after 29 days in the hospital.
There’s something infectious about hope. You see someone with it, and you want to try it on for size. I have friends who now want to raise money for orphanages here and around the world. One person I know said, “We are creating orphans in war zones, and now we’d better find a place for them to live decently, and give them a little hope, otherwise we’ll be lost, too.”
I’d like to think that’s what Americans can and should be doing. I forgot that seeking loftier climes takes work. I confess I am very much out of shape. I can hardly catch my breath. Perhaps if I go about it in a small measure each day, it might be all right.
Small cruelties and small kindnesses have something in common: the results turn out to be bigger than we’ll ever know.
Bruce Bellingham is also a columnist for the Marina Times. Please drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org