22 Jun Living the Philosophy of Optimism | Inspirational Podcasts
Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of inspirational fashion and gift ideas. Visit them online at BookofZen.com. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the work of Helen Keller, who despite being both deaf and blind, lived a life of unbridled optimism and accomplishment.
The test of all beliefs is their practical effect in life. If it be true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain.
Schopenhauer is an enemy to the race. Even if he earnestly believed that this is the most wretched of possible worlds, he should not promulgate a doctrine which robs men and women of the incentive to fight with circumstance. If Life gave Schopenhauer ashes for bread, it was his fault. Life is a fair field for most of us, and the right will prosper, if we stand by our guns.
Let pessimism once take hold of the mind, and life is all topsy-turvy, all vanity and vexation of spirit. There is no cure for individual or social disorder, except in forgetfulness and annihilation. “Let us eat, drink and be merry,” says the pessimist, “for to-morrow we die.”
But if I (being deaf and blind) regarded my life from the point of view of such pessimism, I would be undone. I should seek in vain for the light that does not visit my eyes and the music that does not ring in my ears. I should beg night and day and never be satisfied. I should sit apart in awful solitude, a prey to fear and despair. But since I consider it a duty to myself and to others to be happy, I escape a misery worse than any physical deprivation.
Who shall dare let their incapacity for hope or goodness cast a shadow upon the courage of those who bear their burdens as if they were privileges? The optimist cannot fall back, cannot falter; for we know our neighbors will be hindered by our failure to keep in line. We will therefore hold our place fearlessly and remember the duty of silence.
Sufficient unto each heart is its own sorrow. We will take the iron claws of circumstance in our hands and use them as tools to break away the obstacles that block our paths. We will work as if upon us alone depended the establishment of heaven on earth.
Let it be remembered that the world’s philosophers—the Sayers of the Word—were optimists; so also are the men and women of action and achievement—the Doers of the Word. No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.
The optimist believes, attempts, achieves. They stand always in the sunlight. Some days the wonderful, the inexpressible, arrives and shines upon them, and they are there to welcome it. The soul of the optimist meets its own and beats a glad march to every new discovery, every fresh victory over difficulties, every addition to human knowledge and happiness.
We have recognized that our great philosophers and great men and women of action are optimists. So, too, our most potent writers have been optimists in their books and in their lives. No pessimist ever won an audience commensurately wide with their genius. And many optimistic writers have been read and admired out of all measure to their talents, simply because they wrote of the sunlit side of life.
Dickens, Lamb, Irving, all the well-beloved and gentle humorists, were optimists. Meanwhile, Oliver Swift, the pessimist, never had as many readers as his towering genius should have commanded. Despite a few exceptions, such as the “Rubáiyát” of Omar Khayyám, we may set it down as a rule that the writer who would be heard must be a believer, must have a fundamental optimism in their philosophy. Sure, they may bluster and disagree and lament as Carlyle and Ruskin do sometimes; but a basic confidence in the good destiny of life and of the world must underlie their work.
Shakespeare is the prince of optimists. His tragedies are a revelation of moral order. In “King Lear” and “Hamlet” there is a looking forward to something better. Someone is left at the end of the play to right the wrong, restore society, and build the state anew. The later plays, “The Tempest” and “Cymbeline,” show a beautiful, placid optimism which delights in reconciliations and reunions, and which plans for the triumph of external, as well as internal, good.
The writings of Robert Louis Stevenson have long been an inspiration to me. I remember an hour when I was severely discouraged and ready to falter. For days I had been pegging away at a task which refused to get itself accomplished. In the midst of my perplexity, I read an essay of Stevenson which made me feel as if I had been “outing” in the sunshine, instead of losing heart over a difficult task. I tried again with new courage and succeeded almost before I knew it.
On the other hand, read Schopenhauer and Omar, and you will grow to find the world as hollow as they find it. Read Green’s history of England, and the world is peopled with heroes. I never knew why Green’s history thrilled me with the vigor of romance until I read his biography. Then I learned how his quick imagination transfigured the hard, bare facts of life into new and living dreams. When he and his wife were too poor to have a fire, he would sit before the unlit hearth and pretend that it was ablaze. “Drill your thoughts,” he said; “shut out the gloomy and call in the bright. There is more wisdom in shutting one’s eyes than your textbook philosophers will allow.”
Every optimist moves along with progress and hastens it, while every pessimist would keep the world at a standstill. The consequence of pessimism in the life of a nation is the same as in the life of the individual. Pessimism kills the instinct that urges us to struggle against poverty, ignorance, and crime, and dries up all the fountains of joy in the world.
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope. When our forefathers laid the foundation of the American commonwealths, what nerved them to their task but a vision of a free community? Against the cold, inhospitable sky, across the wilderness white with snow (where hidden dangers lurked), gleamed the bow of promise, toward which they set their faces with the faith that levels mountains, fills up valleys, bridges rivers, and carries civilization to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Although the pioneers could not build according to the ideal they saw, they gave the pattern of all that is most enduring in our country today. They brought to the wilderness the thinking mind, the printed book, the deep-rooted desire for self-government and the English common law that judges alike the king and the subject, the law on which rests the whole structure of our society.
It is significant that the foundation of that law is optimistic. During the 1800s, the courts in many countries proceeded with a pessimistic bias. The prisoner was held guilty until they were proved innocent. However, in England and the United States there was (and is) the optimistic presumption that the accused is innocent until it is no longer possible to deny their guilt. And although this system may result in many criminals being acquitted; it is surely better than that many innocent persons should suffer wrongly.
Let me say it again. Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. The prophets of the world have been of good heart, or their standards would have stood naked in the field without a defender. For example, Tolstoy’s criticisms of America were devoid of power because they were pessimistic. If he had seen clearly the faults of America, and still believed in her capacity to overcome them, our people might have felt the stimulation of his censure. But the world turns its back on hopeless prophets, and thus we listen to Emerson instead, who takes into account the best qualities of our nation and attacks only the vices which no one can defend or deny.
We also listen to strong leaders like Lincoln, who in times of doubt, trouble, and need did not falter. He saw success afar, and by strenuous hope, by hoping against hope, inspired a nation. Through the night of our despair he said, “All is well,” and thousands rested in his confidence. When such a leader censures, and points to a fault, the nation listens and the ears awaken; but to the lamentations of the habitual Jeremiah, the ear grows dull.
Our newspapers should remember this. The press is the pulpit of the modern world, and on the preachers who fill it much depends. If the protest of the press against unrighteous measures is to succeed, then for ninety-nine days the editorials should be buoyant and of good cheer, so that on the hundredth day the voice of censure may be a hundred times strong. That was Lincoln’s way. He knew the people; he believed in them and rested his faith on the justice and wisdom of the great majority. When in his rough and ready way he said, “You can’t fool all the people all the time,” he expressed a great principle, the doctrine of faith in human nature.
It was because Christ was an optimist that for ages the Western world embraced the message of the Gospels. For twenty centuries the enduring message of Jesus of Nazareth is that all things work together for the ultimate good. His is a message of peace, and a message of reason, a belief in the Idea, not in things; in love, not in conquest.
The optimist is the individual who sees that humanity’s actions are directed not by armies, but by moral power, that the conquests of Alexander and Napoleon are less abiding than Newton’s and Galileo’s and St. Augustine’s silent mastery of the world. Ideas are mightier than fire and sword. Noiselessly they propagate themselves from land to land, and humankind goes out and reaps the rich harvest and is thankful. This was the gospel of Jesus two thousand years ago. And why Christmas Day is a festival of optimism.
Although there are still great evils which have not been subdued (and the optimist is not blind to them), we are yet full of hope. Despondency has no place in our creed, for we believe in the imperishable dignity of every man and every woman.
History records humanity’s ascent. Each halt in our progress has been but a pause before a mighty leap forward. Our present time is not out of joint. If indeed some of the temples we worshipped in have fallen, we will build new ones on the sacred sites, loftier and wiser than those which have crumbled.
If we are losing some of the heroic physical qualities of our ancestors, we shall replace them with a spiritual nobleness that turns aside wrath and binds up the wounds of the vanquished. All the past attainments of humankind are ours; and what’s more, their day-dreams have become our clear realities. Therein lies our hope and sure faith.
As I stand in the sunshine of a sincere and earnest optimism, my imagination “paints yet more glorious triumphs on the cloud-curtain of the future.” Out of the fierce struggle and turmoil of contending systems and powers, I see a brighter spiritual era slowly emerging.
If I should try to say anew the creed of the optimist, I should say something like this: “I believe in humanity, I believe in the power of the spirit. I believe it is a sacred duty to encourage ourselves and others to do good, to try our best, and to be joyful throughout the journey.”
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