Light in the Darkness
Editor’s note: The following post originally appeared on Northern Essex Community College’s “Running the Campus” blog on Dec. 21, the day of the winter solstice. It is an updated version of a 2016 article that addresses the important of optimism. Its author, Lane Glenn, is NECC’s president, and recently was a guest on our weekly podcast, The 495, where he discussed optimism and related topics.
Today is the winter solstice.
Depending on your view of things that means it’s either the shortest day or the longest night of the year.
The reality, of course, is that it is both.
And so it goes for other kinds of reality, too.
The past few years may seem like some of the angriest, most divided and combative years in modern American history, reaching their catastrophic crescendo in 2020, which Time magazine has now deemed “The Worst Year Ever.”
Indeed, 2020 has been the year of COVID-19, a devastating economic recession, the death of George Floyd and America’s tumultuous racial reckoning, massive wildfires, a record number of hurricanes, the first presidential election in our time in which the losing candidate has refused to acknowledge the results, and generally more sturm und drang than we are used to experiencing in one revolution around the sun.
If you want to look for the struggles and problems around us, you’ll find them easily enough. It’s not hard to look back on this year, or any year really, and find plenty to regret, mourn, and seethe about.
The night, it would seem, is far from over.
If you choose, instead or in addition to that dark soul gazing, to seek out strengths, virtues, accomplishments large and small, and acts of simple human kindness, I assure you, they are all around us as well.
As bad as things may sometimes seem, it’s also not hard to look back and find plenty to celebrate, uplift, and sooth.
- While the attention of the entire planet has understandably been riveted on the arrival and spread of the coronavirus, another virus has nearly been eradicated: In August, the World Health Organization declared Africa free of the wild poliovirus.
- Coronavirus lockdowns seem to have had at least one benefit: Several studies, including this one from NASA, showed significant reductions in air pollution around the world.
- SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch astronauts to the International Space Station.
- While vaccines ordinarily take years to develop, send through trials, and gain approval for distribution, drug companies in multiple countries created COVID-19 vaccines in less than nine months, and just nine days ago the Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine for distribution in the United States, signaling the beginning of the end of the global pandemic.
- And in a sign that the universe itself may be ready to offer up some hope, tonight, on the winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn will be forming an extremely rare “Christmas Star,” as the two largest planets in our solar system appear close together for the first time since 1226 A.D.
Just in time. We could all use a little more light in our lives.
So today, on winter solstice, and with only a week or so remaining in 2020, should you be optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world and our future?
Well, you get to choose, but consider this:
- Many studies have shown that a positive outlook is the most important predictor of resilience. Optimists bounce back faster.
- For athletes (and others) focusing on strengths and what you do well leads to faster improvement than hammering away on mistakes.
- Businesses and other organizations with cultures that are more positive and appreciative are also more successful and lasting.
How you view and describe the world, or your particular corner of it, really does go a long way toward creating it, for yourself and those around you.
And if you think your particular circumstances, or even the circumstances of the entire country or world right now are simply too dire for silver linings, please think again.
In 1946, Viktor Frankl published “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a chronicle of his experience as a concentration camp inmate at Auschwitz during the Second World War, and introduction to what he called “logotherapy,” the idea that finding meaning in life is the most powerful and motivating force driving human behavior.
Despite the horrors of the concentration camp and the loss of every family member and friend he had ever known, Frankl discovered that life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In fact, he determined, “love is the highest goal to which man can aspire,” and even a man who seemingly has nothing left in the world may still experience bliss, and hope for the future, simply contemplating what he loves.
None of this is to suggest that problems don’t exist, that genuine evil or misdeeds should not be recognized and fought against, or that 2020, on balance, may not have seemed worse than other years we may have forgotten.
But relentless negativity is draining, and people, organizations and entire nations move in the direction of their vision.
In the days that remain to us this year, my hope is that we find the resilience, the positivity, and the appreciation of the many good things around us to find our meaning, and to focus our vision, on even better days ahead.
If you are looking for some tools and resources to help you in your optimistic quest, here are a few you may find particularly useful and inspiring:
- Visit the web site and subscribe to the morning emails of The Optimist Daily, an organization with a mission “to accelerate the shift in human consciousness by catalyzing 100,000,000 people to start each day with a positive solutions mindset.”
- While you’re at it, stop by the web site and definitely sign up for the occasional Future Crunch newsletter, a compendium of good news stories from around the world that you may have missed, lovingly assembled by an amazing team of scientists, tech wizards, artists, ecologists, and at least one “Optimism Director” who all believe that “science and technology are a powerful force for good. You may want to start with their “99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2020.”
- If you want an even deeper dive into why some of the news you think you know might be turning you toward despair when it should be boosting you toward hopefulness, spend some time roaming Matt Ridley’s blog. Author of “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” Ridley is known for rooting around common misperceptions about problems (like crime, health and poverty) and finding some unexpected silver linings. For a taste of classic Ridley, you can’t beat his essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Why People Prefer Bad News.” (His punchline: “Cheer up. The world’s doing better than you think.”)
- The spring of 2020 brought us a YouTube treat: Some Good News with John Krasinski, in which the well-known star of “The Office” and the Jack Ryan series of spy thrillers reached out to the living rooms of Americans in pandemic lock-down and delivered good news like a virtual high school prom, the cast of “Hamilton” singing happy birthday to a young fan, and a special message from the astronauts on the international space station.
- And longtime readers of my Running the Campus blog will recognize the name Victor Perton, aka “That Optimism Man,” as a good friend, former member of Australia’s Parliament and Commissioner to the Americas who now writes books about leaders’ reflections on positivity, and is opening Centres for Optimism around the world.
Finally, for several years I was involved with Optimist International, a worldwide volunteer organization that serves children and communities, and promotes optimism as a way of life.
I was the president of the Auburn Hills, Michigan, chapter of Optimist International for a while. Each Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. we would meet at our local Boys and Girls Club, say the Pledge of Allegiance, have breakfast, listen to a speaker, and plan our activities for the week.
We ended each meeting at 8:30 by reciting the “Optimist Creed,” originally published by Christian Larson in 1912, and no less aspirational and hopeful more than a century later.
On this weekend of winter solstice, at the end of this particular year, it is what I am promising myself — and what I hope for you, and all of us, too.
The Optimist Creed
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.