I used to be a “glass half‐full” kind of person. I used to be optimistic.
Optimism has never been my natural state of being. I'm not convinced that what comes next is better than what came before. Instead, I cultivated a habit of optimism, not one of certainty but of caution. I want people and the world to be better than they are. Just because things were bad didn't mean that they had to stay that way. Tomorrow could be better than today. I didn't assume there was a bright side but occasionally I found glimpses of it. Visible enough that I knew it was possible.Cautious Optimism
This cautious optimism was not just a habit but a survival mechanism. My childhood taught me to expect the worst. So, I would be pleasantly surprised when life turned out better than I thought it would. If you assume the worst and get something better, you learn that you don't always know what will happen.
Cautious optimism followed me into adulthood. It allowed me to research and write about people and oppressive systems doing their worst. I was able to write about white supremacy and sexism because I thought that if we could name and identify these structural problems, then maybe—just maybe—we could work to dismantle them. I was cautiously optimistic that our efforts made a difference. We only had to act against the sexist, racist status quo and not be complacent. A humane, just future was possible; it had to be.
Now, I wonder if I was wrong.Dwindling Hope
I used to be a hopeful, a hope‐filled, person.
Hope here is not wishful thinking. Instead, it's how Rebecca Solnit understands hope as potential for change. Hope requires imagining that our world can be different than what we have now and acting to bring about that future. It's about possibility and action. Hope shows that what we do matters. The future, Solnit tells us in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2016), is uncertain. And there's power and potential in the uncertainty of the future. Because it isn't guaranteed, we can change it. The present doesn't have to be our future. We can transform what lies ahead of us. If only we imagine something different from what we have now—if we only have hope—the world could be better than it is now. So our actions matter, even if we never know what the future holds.
At the end of 2019, I had hope for 2020. 2019 was a not‐so‐great year, so I thought that a new year had potential. My glass was not quite half‐full. My optimism, a bit banged up and bruised, was still there. My cautious optimism made me think anything would be an improvement over 2019. 2020 didn't have to be a disaster. By the time my January 2020 column on hope published, my optimism was dwindling fast. 2020 was already shaping up to be an even worse year than the one before.
And it was a year of disasters: an unabating, deadly global pandemic; raging fires; the most recorded tropical storms in history; the continued deaths of Black people at the hands of the police; children still separated from their parents at the border; dangerously inept political leaders whose actions, and inaction, get people killed; over 10 million Americans unemployed; a looming eviction crisis; and the personal catastrophes that don't stop just because we're in a pandemic.
But these are only some of the disasters. I can't bring myself to catalog them all. I can't hold them all together and get out of bed in the morning. The unendingness of disaster weighs me down.Emptying and Refilling the Glass
My glass gets emptier and emptier by the day. Caution remains, a constant companion. But my optimism has been misplaced. It is harder and harder to find. I wonder when I'll stop looking for it. I wonder if it's something that's truly lost, impossible to recover even if I want to.
Some days, I think I can make it through. I'm almost positive I will. I'm able to find joy. I'm able to breathe. I'm able to be almost but not quite optimistic. I hope that we don't have to be stuck with what we have. I follow the news about vaccines and allow myself a moment to think that the pandemic might not last forever. I catch brief glimpses of a brighter side and grasp them tightly to get through yet another day.
Other days, the enormity of the pandemic and our terrible present makes it hard to breathe. I become convinced that 2020 broke me fundamentally, and that the pieces are so scattered that I'll never find them all. How can I patch myself up if I can't even find the pieces? The glass is empty, and I want to throw it against a wall. I want to break it as I have been broken. I want to never fill the cup again. I want to be done with optimism and hope and embrace pessimism fully. Assuming the worst because the worst is all that will come next.
And yet, I can't bring myself to be fatalistically pessimistic. Optimism is a hard habit to kick. Hope is too. The glass refills even when I don't expect it to. I know, deep in my bones, that the future is uncertain and that gives us a chance to act. Something else is possible. We have a shot to make 2021 different from 2020. Our terrible present doesn't have to be our terrible future, if we have hope, if we continue to act. I'm cautiously optimistic about the new year. Truly, there's more caution than optimism.
My glass is nowhere near half‐full. But it's not empty either.