• Tiger Lily Raphael

Rationale for radical optimism

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

A photo essay about why optimism is the only way forward, with images from the Black Lives Matter Bristol march taken by Pheobe Montague-Warr.

In late June, during a friend’s 55th birthday picnic, 8-year-old Kayla and I raced away from the adults, nervously gathered for the first time that summer, into the meadow where my 30th birthday picnic had been a few weeks before. When we caught our breath, she casually confessed the conflicting emotions she felt about our new normal: “there are things I like about Covid and things I don’t like. I like staying at home with Mum and Dad, but I don’t like not hugging people.

Not yet taught to file their feelings away into colour-coded folders, a child’s ability to accept the contrasting shades of optimism and pessimism that characterise their day and age can be reassuring. For those of us who like a good folder system, formed by the neat and tidy aspirations of earlier decades, reports on the present and future of this planet are increasingly tricky to categorise. My filing cabinet is somewhat in disarray.

The quantity of media I’ve consumed, exercise I’ve done, sleep I’ve had, and (most importantly) which day it is of my menstrual cycle, can heavily influence where my answers to questions like 'is there a future?' and 'are we more divided than ever?' sit on the spectrum of doom and gloom. Yet, my obstinate optimism (and biological drive to reproduce) insists that there is, and we aren’t, even if from some angles it looks like the world’s gone into a reverse spin whilst hurtling towards a black hole.

It can be tempting to turn to the known horrors or pristine oases of the past as a source for predicting an uncertain future, but this moment in time is unlike any before it. History, as I see it, goes in spirals, rather than circles, gathering momentum, like tumbleweed.

Photo by Pheobe Montague-Warr, Soulfocus Media

As of October 2020, over 7.8 billion humans inhabit this planet - more than half us within cities. 52 years ago, in 1968, there were half as many of us; 100 years ago, in 1920, about 2 billion; 200 years ago, in 1820, half that again [1], when only 3% of people lived in cities [2].

In 1448, the printing press made it possible to share ideas far beyond time and place for the first time. Many more people began learning to read and write, the church lost its dominion of the printed word and secular literature started to circulate, laying the foundations for The Age of Enlightenment 200 years later [3].

300 years after Enlightenment, in 1970, American scientists built a network of 4 computers that could talk to each other in case a Soviet missile brought down the telephone system. 20 years later, a Swiss programmer created the World Wide Web [4], which, within 10 years, would bring us MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and a myriad of new tools that once again revolutionised the way ideas are shared [5].

Things change slowly and swiftly. Our opinions have always differed, there just weren’t as many of us with such easy access to information or so many means to broadcast them. Mass production of knowledge has accelerated innovation so quickly that we don't seem to have enough hours in a day for it. Yet, not even a lifetime has passed since middle-class Brits, now so at home with Netflix and Deliveroo, began consuming pasta and colour TV.

The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view,’ writes Rebecca Solnit; ‘change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.’ [6].

Photo by Pheobe Montague-Warr, Soulfocus Media

The narrow lens of history mainly captures the inventions and explosions, when elements either clash or agree, rather than the slow bubble of alchemical combinations. The process of reaching agreement is sometimes a struggle, but actual conflict is the end or absence of that effort [7], because ignoring a problem is no solution.

Change rarely happens quietly - sometimes silence is a sign of violence. But when things get noisy around the dinner table, as they tend to at my family’s, a lot of loud conversation can sound like an argument, even if it isn’t one.

Perhaps what distinguishes a conflict from a conversation is the assumption that we won’t like what the other person has to say and don’t want to hear it. ‘We’ are already pitted against ‘them’ [8], so, in pre-emptive self-defence of pride and position, both may aim to shoot first. Maybe ‘cancel culture’ is the 21st century duel.

Though we may look askance at those who resort to violence to answer questions of honour, we are liable to share the most significant aspect of the mindset of those who do so: an extreme vulnerability to the disdain of others’, writes Alain De Botton [9]. The longing for love and acceptance both unites and divide us [12].

Photo by Pheobe Montague-Warr, Soulfocus Media

Our species shares the universal desire to belong – symptomatic of the survival strategy that has brought us to world dominance: relationships [10]. Perceived disdain from one's community or culture might cause us to seek an alternative, such as ‘Men Going Their Own Way’; as one explains, ‘a sense of alienation is where this whole thing starts’ [11].

Common Cause Foundation (CCF) asked 1000 people across Britain what they value most in life: ‘compassionate’ [intrinsic] values, such as helpfulness and equality; or ‘selfish’ [extrinsic] values, like personal wealth and success [13].

74% championed compassionate values, but 77% of this group believed most other people and/or institutions to hold selfish values more highly. These people were more likely to feel alienated from their culture and community, whereas, those who regarded institutions as representing compassionate values were more likely to assume that these were also shared by their fellow citizens [13].

This feedback loop moves in more than one direction. When more selfishly-oriented people are engaged in issues from a compassionate perspective, they’re more likely to think about them in a compassionate way [20]. A feedback loop is after all only one original sound, repeating itself and getting accumulatively louder.

Like a hall of mirrors, we perpetrate what we perceive, even if it’s not what we wish to reflect, or what is really even there. ‘How disquieting to realise that reality is illusion, at the best a democratisation of perception based on participant consensus’, writes Dr Yalom [14].

Photo by Pheobe Montague-Warr, Soulfocus Media

The ethos of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King was ‘love in action’, which, he describes, ‘does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understandingout to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust’.

Through forgiveness and faith in humanity, the activist embodied the change they wished to see: ‘a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbour… a willingness to go to any length to restore community… by meeting hate with love’ [16].

The future was in their feet, motivated by the belief that even if racial equality didn’t happen in their lifetime, “it will happen in someone else’s lifetime. But we can still do all we can while we occupy the space”, said John Lewis [17]. Therefore, King explains, ‘the believer in nonviolent resistance has deep faith in the future’ [16], as well as humankind.

Photo by Pheobe Montague-Warr, Soulfocus Media

Without faith in each other and the future, we risk enacting the endemic short-termism that puts them at such great risk; if a child doesn’t trust the provider whose promising a bigger reward worth waiting for, they’ll take the first thing on offer before it disappears, in case they're left with nothing [18].

The instinct to stash and grab doesn't exist because animals are inherently greedy and want more than they need, but because, as hunter-gatherers, what’s needed would have only been available in that moment. ‘The agricultural revolution transformed the way humans think about time... farming-based societies created economies of hope and aspiration, in which we focus almost unerringly on the future’ [19].

By facing the future with a primal fear of what was once sustainable scarcity, driving over-production and unequal distribution, this survival mode is in danger of preventing the very survival it exists to protect. It’s vital that we see the abundance of what we have right now: the glass as half full, and protect what we do have to lose.

Photo by Pheobe Montague-Warr, Soulfocus Media

Definition of 'optimism': 'Someone who is optimistic is hopeful about the future or the success of something in particular'. Hope, Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine… Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable… It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same’ [6].

‘Sankofa’ is a symbol of the Akan tribe from Ghana that means to stand in the present moment, seeing with the wisdom of the past, whilst walking forwards: ‘San’ – return, ‘Ko’ – go, and ‘Fa’ – look, see and take. There's no going backwards or knowing what the future holds and staying still isn't an option. So, though change can be noisy, remember, ‘trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible’ [21].

It’s perfectly reasonable to feel pessimistic, and possible to be simultaneously optimistic. I choose optimism, because without it, there's no point in planting anything. It's what we do today that shapes tomorrow. The future is here. The future is now. We are the future.

[1] Worldometer

[2] Collyer, M. (2015), ‘The world’s urban population is growing…’, The Conversation

[3] Christopher McFadden 2018, 'The Invention and History of the Printing Press', Interesting Engineering

[4] The Invention of the Internet, history.com

[5] The History of Social Media, socialmediatoday.com

[6] Rebecca Solnit on hope in dark times, Brain Pickings

[7] Outrage & Optimism with David Attenborough (podcast) Global Optimism

[8] TED Radio hour, ‘Reconciliation’, NPR

[9] Alain De Botton (2004), ‘Status Anxiety’, Penguin Books

[10] Yuval Noah Harari (2011), ‘Sapiens’, Harper

[11] Laura Bates (2020), ‘Men going their own way: the rise of a toxic male separatist movement’, The Guardian

[12] Rutger Bregman, (video) Facebook

[13] Perceptions Matter (2016), Common Cause Foundation

[14] Irvin D. Yalom (1991), ‘Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy’, Penguin Books

[16] An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’, Brain Pickings

[17] John Lewis, Love in Action, (podcast) OnBeing

[18] The Marshmallow Test: Delayed Gratification in Children, Thought.co

[19] James Suzeman (2017), ‘How Neolithic farming sowed the seeds of modern inequality 10,000 years ago’, The Guardian

[20] Tom Crompton (2020) Food Talks: Addressing Multiple Emergencies, Food Ethics Council

[21] Richard Powers (2018), ‘The Overstory’, Vintage

Recent Posts

See All