Opinion: The New Optimism - Optimism Week


By Gabriela Kalter

Photo by Gabriela Kalter. Carousel photo courtesy of Takeshi.

As dinner with a friend came to a close at a local Chinese restaurant, we were presented with the check along with a plate of orange wedges and two complimentary fortune cookies. Retrieving the scrap of paper from inside the crunchy dessert has never been my favorite part of the meal, but I reached for the cookie out of some enigmatic respect for tradition and proceeded with the routine table reading of my blue-fonted fortune: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

My reaction wasn’t all that surprising, I guess. Snorting with disgust at the fortune’s cheeriness and positivity, I wondered how such a cheesy sentiment could be expected to inspire anything but a feeling of ridiculous irritation. It seemed so general and impersonal. “Creating your future” just represented all that idealistic crap that is always so much easier said than done. All I could think of was the poor schmuck that wrote this, sitting by a shitty computer, wondering what happened to their dreams of becoming a great poet or novelist. There’s no way that this was the future they had dreamed of creating for themselves.

I ate the cookie and, chewing with anger, thought how stupid it seemed to learn the word “lettuce” in Chinese. I couldn’t even have a full exchange with a grocer with that level of fluency. I hated both sides of my fortune, but ironically, I was thoroughly enjoying the taste of the cookie. I was then overcome with a deep sense of guilt, which carried me to the parking lot, into my car and back home.

When had I become such a curmudgeon? I took a lighthearted activity and dragged it to the pits of my inner darkness. And why? I’ve been the recipient of much more infuriating fortunes, but for whatever reason this one got under my skin. It somehow simplified this positive approach to life, one that I find to be a real struggle. I felt like the fortune needed a footnote explaining all of the obstacles that the world presents on the way to creating your future.

I feel a similar frustration towards the Nike slogan, “just do it.” It’s so direct, as if “just doing it” is so simple and easy. You don’t think that if I thought I could “just do it” then I would have done it already? Life is harder than that, Nike! All of these oversimplified, short sentences that were meant to be encouraging only felt like they were mocking me and my struggle with becoming a full-fledged, functional member of society.

In Defense of Cynicism

It’s easy to be cynical, expected even. In this post-modern society of existential angst, we are taught to question everything. We’re encouraged to be skeptical. In fact, if you readily accept anything too prematurely, you’ll likely be regarded as an unthinking conformist with no intellectual capability or self-knowledge. We are a diverse society that hosts a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Further, the range of choices available to us can be overwhelming. In a world where truth is subjective and structure is contrived, it seems that nothing is absolute or inherently certain. Who do we trust? What can we believe in?

Nihilism becomes a viable alternative to committing to any specific ideologies, and a state of such uncertainty can lead to indifference, apathy, and consequentially cynicism. It’s instinctual to reject. We’re wary of accepting anything as true because we’re afraid of limiting ourselves. Once we subscribe to any belief system, we risk being labeled, grouped, and then judged based off of this social categorization. How can we be positive when we’re so distrustful of everyone and everything?

Optimism is a struggle. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. Either that, or they’re on some kind of hallucinogenic drug, in which case, ask them if they are willing to share and to please get in touch with me immediately. In a nation of individualists, rife with competition and capitalistic leaps toward success, life can feel lonely and dark.

Our media is saturated with negative news, run by fear mongering propagandists who coax young minds into avoiding human connection for risk of contracting the latest disease or being exploited by sexual deviants, human traffickers, serial killers, etc. If it’s not a devastating school shooting, it’s the economic collapse or the cutthroat job market making headlines. Positivity is less frequently broadcast, not as urgently recognized. Why is it that biting digs are always easier to remember than the compliments? Why aren’t acts of human kindness considered as news worthy as the unfortunate marks of evil?

Being raised in this day and age has altered the sense of stability felt in previous generations. Generation Y, or millennials, have been hesitant to acclimate to the issues of the day, leading to a sense of disconnected defensiveness, which gives way to the ethos of irony. Professor and researcher Christy Wampole discussed the indirectness of irony in her highly criticized New York Times op-ed “How to Live Without Irony,” published last year. She generalized today’s youth in her disdain for the hipster culture and how their roots in irony have cultivated an irresponsible avoidance of real life.

As a millennial with a tendency to be pessimistic, I feel a need to justify our generation’s use of irony and cynicism as a coping mechanism. Wampole is correct in citing irony as a mode of self-defense. It’s a way of remaining at a distance, a way to avoid true rejection and preserve self-esteem. We feel a need to protect ourselves because we are distrustful. We are bombarded with information and so many people feel that it is safer to be disaffected from it all.

Cynicism thrives on the mentality of being a victim. It is a cynic who believes that they have no control over their lives, that external forces and luck are responsible for their fate and to try for anything is a waste of time and energy. When the majority of media content focuses on events that are largely out of our hands, it’s instinctual to take on an outlook of helplessness and hopelessness.

So, Wampole’s observation of a generation oozing with irony is a legitimate one. But, her tone lacks understanding and compassion when the state of today’s youth makes sense. We are brought up with expectations that cannot be met in the increasingly competitive world. A world where everyone is fighting to be number one: to have the most money, the biggest house, the fastest car, the most impressive job, the newest gadgets, etc. We become jaded over time as our expectations are not met and our disappointments pile up along with our school loans and prescriptions for anti-depressants.

Even though we are expected be happier because of increased opportunities and access to information, it is precisely these advancements that leave us overwhelmed with expectations that are much too high and a sense of security and stability that is much too low.

The New Sincerity

It is of course unfair to generalize an entire generation as depressed and cynical hipsters. Wampole’s article received a lot of disapproval, including a notable response “Sincerity Not Irony is Our Age’s Ethos” by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald in The Atlantic. He criticizes Wampole for claiming that irony is the ethos of our entire generation when in fact he believes we are headed towards a more authentic era full of hope and honesty.

He cites a cultural movement known as ‘The New Sincerity,’ which he asserts began in the 1980s and is characterized by a shift in attitude towards pop cultural appreciation and approach to consumerism. It largely revolves around a rejection of irony and a celebration of authenticity, joy, connection, and all things awesome. It emerged as a counterculture of the punk and grunge movements, which were driven by ambivalence and dark irony in an age of rebellion and wasted youth.

Though elements of this darkness are still prevalent today, ‘The New Sincerity’ is an encouraging shift from hopelessness to a focus on genuine appreciation of the joie de vivre. A strong proponent of this ethos is Jesse Thorn who hosts the American public radio show known as “Bullseye” (formerly “The Sound of Young America”). His vision spawned into a production organization and podcast network known as Maximum Fun, which promotes joyful appreciation and celebration of awesomeness. Thorn views the movement as a fusion of irony and sincerity in an effort to create something honest and more reflective of our times. It is not without struggle and darkness, but it aims to overcome the preoccupation with negativity and embrace uncertainty, allowing it to take us someplace real.

The popularity of ‘The New Sincerity’ is evident in the refreshing works of music and film that are rooted in the movement. Filmmaker Wes Anderson tends to be cited as a notable pioneer of the movement for creating work with a distinct aura of melancholic beauty. His most recent film, Moonrise Kingdom is a celebration of innocence and return to a lost purity. It’s quaint and romantic, but at the same time it’s modern and clever. Similarly, Zach Braff has been referenced as an artistic figure of ‘The New Sincerity.’ His movie Garden State is an example of freshness and authenticity derived from the pain of real life and tragedy. Beauty and hope emerge from a place of suffering, and this speaks directly to the message of this cultural movement.

Music has also seen a wave of artists of a similar mentality. Groups like Mumford and Sons, Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Of Monsters and Men are just a few that represent the reach for sentimentality. It’s not enough to be angry or sad. Those are static plateaus to exist on, not just artistically but also psychologically.

Don’t be a Negatron, Be an Optimus Prime

We may believe that cynicism is a useful self-defense tactic, a protection against the harsh realities of life, and sure, it can be in certain circumstances. But, by always being cynical we are only closing ourselves off from joy and connection in a world where there is so much goodness to experience.

‘The New Sincerity’ is about combining the roughness of reality with the necessary desire to find hope and joy. Wanting to be happy is okay. There is no shame in positivity. It doesn’t make you naive or stupid. It’s a choice to live brightly and richly. Reaching for beauty despite of, or in spite of, all the dark truths in the world is the essence that I derive from this new sincerity. The overarching goal of authenticity will result from a genuine effort to reach for truth and meaning in a world where it’s easy to believe they don’t exist.

I used to believe that ignorance was bliss, and that if you were smart and aware of the world around you, there was no choice but to be a pessimist. Cynicism made you smart and anyone who was happy was clearly off their rocker. But, I was wrong. What really makes you smart is being able to acknowledge the negativity around you and persist in moving beyond it, finding meaning and happiness, finding joy and hope amidst all the overwhelming negativity; thriving and living and battling pessimistic tendencies.

It’s so much cooler to inspire and be inspired, to care about life, feel feelings, and connect to people than it is to reject and isolate yourself from the world. We have to get over the fear of rejection and failure. Embracing our uncertainty is the first step. Striving to find substance that appeals to our originality will be our salvation from the darkness and discontent of cynicism.

Being negative is tired. It’s boring and it’s played out. It’s expected. In this one-upping culture of being the hippest and doing the newest, it’s time to pave the path of optimism. That’s the deepest and most intelligent of all mentalities.

Half Empty or Half Full?

In my coax for optimism, I’m not rendering pessimism totally useless. It has its place, just like anything does. Without the bad, there would be no good. If there was no darkness, then what does that make light? There is no optimism without pessimism. In order to see the brighter side of any situation there has to be a gloomier one and it is only in this ability to recognize the emptiness of the glass that we can fully understand the fullness of it.

In the end, it’s about balance. We all have the potential to be an optimist or a pessimist, I only wish that the former were more frequently channeled and the latter wasn’t such a driving force in our daily lives. The true beauty of being human is our complexity. The brilliance lies in our capacity to embody so many emotions and layers of behavior. It’s how we choose to access these layers that determines who we are. We hold the power to tweak our frame of mind, which in turn alters the way we function in and interact with the world around us. This ability to live the life we’ve always wanted is reason enough to be optimistic. There’s so much goodness to be seen, it’s up to us to open our eyes.

It’s worth mentioning the fortune that my friend found in her cookie at the end of our Chinese feast. Her fortune said, “Do not let ambitions overshadow small success.” This is an appropriately comforting counter fortune to the one that I received. Yes, life is hard and creating your future is easier said than done, but the joy lies in the appreciation of the little things. Do not let ambitions overshadow small success. Do not forget to be optimistic and happy about where you are so far. Crossing the finish line shouldn’t blind you from enjoying the race. How’s that for a fortune?