Seeking Optimism for the End of the World
July 29, 2021 5:36 PM   Subscribe

Between the COVID pandemic, climate change, and general global tension, it’s gotten harder to remain optimistic for the future. Humanity has overcome other challenges before, but this feels like *a lot*. I’m in my early twenties – How do you stay optimistic in the face of so much adversity?

I’m really looking for two things – bonus points if you get both:

1) Concrete Optimism -- Facts, figures, and hard data suggesting that we’ll actually be okay. I want to hear about how we’re saving the world. The tangible, good things that people are doing to secure a brighter future for everyone.

2) Life Raft Optimism – The things you cling to when the water is rising. When it feels like you might be drowning in all the Bad Stuff. The mantras you repeat to yourself in order to stay sane. The things you tell your kids when they’re scared about the future too.

I’m young(ish). I’d like to get my master’s degree. Buy a house. Hold a steady job. Retire. Do all the things that generations before me have done. But, as each year goes by, I feel like that future is slipping away. Some of my friends aren’t saving for retirement or planning for the future at all – they don’t think they’ll live that long.

When all the Bad Stuff gets to be too much, I’d like to have something to hold on to. Some hope that I will have a future of some kind. I need some proof that even if it feels like the world is ending, everything just might work out okay.

And don’t you DARE say that things will only get worse. NO. This is actually unacceptable. Minus points if you respond with something salty like that.
posted by NewShoo to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I read Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, in March 2020. A book about plague sounds like the least optimistic thing, but I found it really comforting to think that generations past have had to deal with the end of the world, too. Ditto Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars, about a maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic.

And I try every day to put more good into the world than I take out of it. I'm not a superhero, I can't stop climate change, I'm not even sure I can convince someone to get vaccinated. But I can comfort someone grieving a loss, I can sort my recycling, I can zoom with friends and former colleagues scattered around the country.

To quote That Guy who wrote an entire book about this: il faut cultiver notre jardin. (Seriously though, if you're looking for Life Raft Optimism, Candide is where it's at. Thoroughly skewers Panglossian "all for the best / it could be worse" mentality and comes to an introspective, engaged end.)
posted by basalganglia at 6:24 PM on July 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'm in my forties now and I'm old enough to see the social progress we've made in the past thirty years and hope to see a lot more in the next forty.

Even though I'm a liberal commie, some day I'lll finally be old enough to be the 21st century equivalent of the "slightly racist grandparent". I'm excited for the new future world to exist that makes geriatric me uncomfortable.
posted by noloveforned at 6:25 PM on July 29, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Hi NewShoo,

RE: Life Raft Optimism, one of the things that's really helped me over the past year is the Buddhist concept of "wise hope."

The basic principle is that 1) We can't control everything that happens to us. "Bad things" are inevitable--even if the particular bad things that we fear don't come to pass, others will crop up in their place. 2) We do have (some) control over how we respond to them, and that itself can give us hope.

Roshi Joan Halifax has a good definition: “Wise hope is not seeing things unrealistically but rather seeing things as they are, including the truth of suffering — both its existence and our capacity to transform it.

"We can give up our attachment to specific outcomes and simply make our best effort in each moment to do what feels right. We do the right thing for the sake of itself— not because we think it’s going to get us to a certain place. There’s no need to know or control how it will all turn out."

Sometimes I repeat to myself: "You can't control what happens to you - AND - what you do in response matters."

I'd planned to get married in June of this year. This past March, it felt so, so painful to have any hope that the vaccines might roll out in time for me to get married with my loved ones. I started to worry that even if I could have my wedding safely, I'd have built up so much stress and fear around it that I wouldn't enjoy it.

The thing that helped me feel better was talking to friends who had had to cancel, postpone, or delay important life events during the pandemic. I saw the way they'd been able to find unexpected joy, even though they didn't get what they wanted. They had every right to be pissed off and disappointed, too, and they were! The negative emotions didn't disappear, but the positive ones were so much stronger than I expected, and that felt really meaningful.

Your question reminds me a lot of the poem "Good Bones" by Maggie Smith.

"Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful."
posted by abry0 at 6:45 PM on July 29, 2021 [28 favorites]

Life has improved dramatically for most of the world’s population over the last century and particularly over the last twenty years.

Child mortality is down globally

Extreme poverty is at its lowest level since at least 1800, in terms of both the number of people living in extreme poverty and as a percentage of the population.

Literacy rates are probably at the highest levels in the history of humanity

These are all long term trends. Most of these gain have been made by some of the most disadvantaged people in the most disadvantaged parts of the world. We collectively have a lot of work still to do, but there is progress. All those children who now survive childhood and learn to read, all those people who are no longer in extreme poverty, they are all potential new allies who can continue to make the world better.
posted by chrisulonic at 6:48 PM on July 29, 2021 [11 favorites]

I know it's not exactly what you asked for, and it's not for everyone, but optimistic nihilism is where I've settled (or at least that's what I've heard the kids calling it these days). This is a good enough primer.

To each their own, of course.
posted by booooooze at 7:45 PM on July 29, 2021

six week social media and news blackout. plus, take a walk 3 days/wk. observe what happens.

the something you can hold on to: attention on the out breath.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:54 PM on July 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

What gives me the most sense of hope is not really what you're looking for. Accept we have lost the war, grieve for what we are losing, and then try to save what we can. The optimism is that I will be able to look back at my life and feel okay about the decisions I made. And that I will be prepared for what comes and meet it gracefully.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:05 PM on July 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sure I got it somewhere on Metafilter, but I think of a deer in a forest. And the deer can sense predators 100m away, and usually deers escape from predators with that headstart but not always. Then one day, someone gives the deer a bionic upgrade and it can detect predators 120m away. Now, not only does it have a bit more of a headstart, it has a leg up on predators that are sneaking up, planning on pouncing from 105m.

So then someone decides if this is good, then more would be even better. And they give the deer a bionic upgrade so it can detect predators 5,000m away. And the poor deer spends the rest of it's life freaking the fuck out because there's literally always a predator 5,000m away; most of them are on the other side of the mountain, with no idea that there's even a deer there; some of them are hibernating for god's sake. But the deer spends it's life terrified of the continuous pinging.

And this doesn't mean that sometimes there isn't a predator 105m away, but it does mean that sometimes I give myself permission to be the unaugmented deer and just enjoy a sunny meadow with plenty of fresh grass.
posted by Superilla at 10:06 PM on July 29, 2021 [38 favorites]

I zoom the picture out from my personal future and my civilization's future to human happiness and non-human life whatever occurs in this blip of geological time. That the world, in a large sense, almost cannot end. I think this is not what you're going for, but I can expand if it is.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:13 PM on July 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

If you’re on Reddit, check out r/ClimateActionPlan

Banks are on board
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:41 PM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I follow the World Economic Forum on LinkedIn and the posts by them are consistently real, interesting and hopeful.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:57 PM on July 29, 2021

Come to think of it, my feed is filled with non-profits, it’s lovely.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:59 PM on July 29, 2021

This is your one precious human lifetime. What are your values? What brings you joy? How can you help? People have been born into endless lifetimes of war, abuse, scarcity, fear: it has not stopped us from making art, honoring friendships, falling in love, laughing, planting gardens, pushing for progress. If the human species were not driven to make life meaningful in the face of adversity (including our own fucking folly), we would have vanished off the face of the planet ages ago. This is cheesy to the nth degree, but it inspires me when I’m in my darkest places. Thinking of you with care.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 11:01 PM on July 29, 2021 [12 favorites]

I'd like to suggest a third form of optimism: activism. Run for office, or join an organization that is fighting climate change, or organize a protect. I totally get how you feel - all the stuff going on is very dispiriting. But all we can do it try to help move things in a better direction. Taking action is a good antidote to this feeling of dread.
posted by Dansaman at 11:12 PM on July 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

I like thinking about the amazing advances in technology that have brought us video chatting and virtual dinner parties and driverless cars so that when I inevitably experience disability I will still be able to go places and be with friends and family.
posted by shadygrove at 11:37 PM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Neat question, TYFS. Interesting responses. My current read is Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics, which reframes the State of the World in ways which seem to give ordinary people more leverage to make change and live their best lives: you don't have to be a passive wage-earner and consumer, you can contribute to the commons: start busking; or a soup kitchen; adopt an unattractive endangered species. Anyway, a review of her book led to how to stay motivated by Max Klymenko which includes the advice "set ridiculously low goals" and do whatever you do on the regular. If you do one thing that you're proud of [keeping your standards real low] every day, you'll be able to look back on a month, a year with a tangible achievement. That will frame the next month/year more brightly. Each journey starts with a step.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:59 AM on July 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with Dansaman - taking action, even (or perhaps especially) very small action, is key for me. On the most basic level - simply doing a random act of kindness changes you profoundly. We cannot all run for office or commit to volunteering, though these are much needed measures for sure. But we can be kind. Be purposefully kind. Think about what kindness means, how it affects you when you receive it and observe how it changes you when you offer it. Start small. In fact, commit to being kind in the smallest of ways. It will change your thinking without you making any effort except to focus your attention on how you can make tiny changes, moment to moment, that affect other creatures. This is especially wonderful to do with your children - you cannot honestly tell them that all the problems they cannot help seeing in the wide world will ultimately be resolved but you can help them direct their attention immediately outward and toward kindly actions they may take in their tiny sphere. I am literally flooded with joy just thinking about you and your future children embarking on a lifelong journey of kindness and mindfulness together. You have so much to look forward to and so, so much goodness to experience. Please embrace it. Conscious kindness is the place to start, I believe.
posted by flowergrrrl at 6:14 AM on July 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

A couple books that might add some sunshine:

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

Quite different from each other, Both are easy reads. Both left me feeling more positive about the future.
posted by metadave at 7:51 AM on July 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just have this advice to offer you and your friends:

When I was the age you are now, we were all convinced we were going to die in a US v USSR nuclear war before we were old enough to have degrees, jobs, homes, families, retirement, etc. Accordingly, I and many of my friends neglected saving for retirement. I'm 50 now, dependent on social security to supplement my belated retirement savings if I want to ever stop working, and I could honestly kick the crap out of that kid who didn't put a dime in a 401k until her mid-30's because she kept waiting for the world to end. (Spoiler: It didn't!)

I would suggest you take Nick Fury's advice: Until such time as the world ends, act as though it intends to spin on.

The world is far more likely to change radically than it is to actually end within our lifetimes. And the more prepared you are, the more likely you are to weather that change okay, and the better you'll feel about your ability to survive whatever life throws your way. Look at the world you're in; help what you can, who you can, where you can; and keep a go-bag ready just in case. Fortune favors the prepared, etc etc etc.

Oh, and keep your car gassed/charged up. Half a tank = empty.
posted by invincible summer at 10:34 AM on July 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

"Hope is a discipline." - Mariame Kaba

"That speaks to me as a philosophy of living, that hope is a discipline and that we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever. ... I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way. I choose to trust people until they prove themselves untrustworthy.

... And I don’t also take a short-time view, I take a long view, understanding full well that I’m just a tiny, little part of a story that already has a huge antecedent and has something that is going to come after that, that I’m definitely not going to be even close to around for seeing the end of. So, that also puts me in the right frame of mind, that my little friggin’ thing I’m doing, is actually pretty insignificant in world history, but [if] it’s significant to one or two people, I feel good about that. If I’m making my stand in the world and that benefits my particular community of people, the people I designate as my community, and I see them benefiting by my labor, I feel good about that. That actually is enough for me."
Intercept interview
"And that became a mantra for me in terms of when I would feel unmoored. Or when I would feel overwhelmed by what was going on in the world, I would just say to myself: “Hope is a discipline.” It’s less about “how you feel,” and more about the practice of making a decision every day, that you’re still gonna put one foot in front of the other, that you’re still going to get up in the morning. And you’re still going to struggle, that that was what I took away from it.

It’s work to be hopeful. It’s not like a fuzzy feeling. Like, you have to actually put in energy, time, and you have to be clear-eyed, and you have to hold fast to having a vision. It’s a hard thing to maintain. But it matters to have it, to believe that it’s possible, to change the world. You know, that we don’t live in a predetermined, predestined world where like nothing we do has an impact. ... We’re constantly changing. We’re constantly transforming. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good or bad. It just is. That’s always the case. And so, because that’s true, we have an opportunity at every moment to push in a direction that we think is actually a direction towards more justice.

People are doing work all the time and consistently and constantly. And I don’t know where that’s going to go. I don’t know what the end result is going to look like. But it’s part of a long legacy, what we call la longue durée. This is a long term arc of work and I’m not a progress-narrative person, so I think everything happens at the same time. So we’re resisting and we’re being crushed at the same time always, like they’re parallel tracks happening. Let’s just do what we can where we are within our capacity to the best of our abilities. Like, that’s really the best we can be hoping for. And let’s learn from the mistakes we make.
"The struggle, in and of itself, has meaning." - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Letter to My Son
"Perhaps struggle is all we have. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

... You are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.

... I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world."
YES! Magazine - solutions journalism
posted by eyeball at 11:23 AM on July 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

Great answers above. I loved the bionic deer. These are just the thoughts that came to my mind after reading the question. I know you want facts and figures proving we are going to be OK, but as an old dude I'm just going to try to give some perspective.

I remember reading some book (?) where they used the example of an Israeli mother being sad to see their child growing up because it would mean they would be faced with military service. I thought to myself how perverse that was, as if the future held nothing but certain doom.

I'm in my 60s and in grade school we practiced ducking under our desk during nuclear attack drills. Now we're social distancing, and the "fall out" from the pandemic is "lies on social media".

When I graduated college we were having an economic recession because we were running out of oil. Of course we weren't.

I remember thinking when I was a high school kid that if I became an engineer and made $10K per year I'd be set. I made that in my first job out of college, but I wasn't set.

Taking it from the personal to the global, I don't think we've ever been in a worse situation to experience a major CME but I'm not going to dwell on it because it's not actionable (unless your prepper skills are really great).

A relative of mine is a physicist and says that whatever mankind does is dwarfed by this planet's weather. Which is not to say that we aren't wrecking the planet, but the flip side is that perhaps we want to align ourselves with the most powerful force on the planet instead of fighting it all the time.

Taking it back to the personal, a quote by Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives me some reason for optimism:

"The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. ... And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained”.
posted by forthright at 6:28 PM on July 30, 2021

I participate in the MeFi Card Club and recently asked for inspiration and kind words to help me weather some challenges. One MeFite shared the following lovely poem (thank you Mulkey!) and I’m passing it on to you.

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope —
not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower;
nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through);
nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of
“Everything is gonna be all right.”

But a different, sometimes lonely place,
the place of truth-telling,
about your own soul first of all and its condition,
the place of resistance and defiance,
the piece of ground from which you see the world
both as it is and as it could be, as it will be;
the place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
but joy in the struggle.

And we stand there, beckoning and calling,
telling people what we are seeing,
asking people what they see.
—Victoria Stafford

I don’t think I have much more than a flimsy garden gate to offer you, but here goes: you are reasonable, intelligent, and highly motivated but you can’t solve the world’s problems on your own – and you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to feel like it’s all on you. Continue to support progressive leaders who can take us in the right direction – and be one of those leaders if you can. Loudly denounce those who try to minimize or trivialize what you know to be true (that the climate crisis is real, or love is love, or vaccines save lives, etc.).

In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Your group (our group) is no longer small – it’s the majority and it’s growing. If we continue to band together, everything is gonna be all right.
posted by kbar1 at 4:12 PM on August 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

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