The Falling Optimist

Posted on January 20 2021
Howard Feldman

The story is told of an optimist who falls from the top of the Empire State Building. On the way down, around the 30th floor, someone leans out the window and shouts, “Hey, how is it going?” The optimist, still falling, looks at him, gives him a big thumbs up and a confident smile, and screams back, “Yeah! So far so good!”

This is not a year for delusional optimism.

Two years ago at the height of yet another Eskom power cut disaster, I wrote an article that pondered if it was possible to smile in the dark? The country had been crippled once again by the ineptitude of the state run power producer who continued to hold tightly on to its monopoly . In doing so it had successfully stifled the economy along with it any real hope of growth and recovery. Worse than that it was  becoming more apparent just how much of a role corruption had played.  I considered at that time, with so much negativity around us, if it was possible to be upbeat and positive. In essence, whilst we sat in our dark homes enduring yet another round of senseless load-shedding, if it were possible to still remain an optimist.

I had also, at that time just released my book Smile Dammit, which made it obligatory  for me to answer that it was.

Perspective is of course everything and had I known then what we would be facing in 2020 and 2021, the answer would have probably been easier to reach. Because now, not only are we sitting in the dark, faced with another round of power cuts, but we are also doing this in the midst of a second surge of a pandemic that seems to have no end date. And will not have an end date without a vaccine.  And worse, given the vague and confusing information and communication we are receiving, it is starting to look like the vaccine program might as well be handled by ESKOM. The only question is if electricity from Madupi or the vaccines will be available first?

This past Monday, January the 18th was officially Blue Monday. Although the origins are unclear, it is observed (not celebrated) on the 3rd Monday of January. It is apparently the most depressing day of the year in a normal year. Although the day was glaringly unnecessary this year, it was a good time to once again consider if it is possible to remain positive (not COVID positive) at a time like this.

A recent discussion with the manager of a local bookstore provided me with some insight. As I always do, I asked her if she was seeing a trend in the types of books that people were reading. She said that at the moment there didn’t seem to be, but that there is one book that they are selling consistently. And that is Man’s Search for Meaning by Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The book was written in 1946 and chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In it, he describes his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positive about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

In essence, according to Frankl, we need to find a purpose. It is not about finding a quick way to dispel the misery of a “Blue Monday” but rather it is about finding meaning. What that might mean will be person dependant but if we hope to find real positivity and to live a life of meaningful optimism, we need to establish what that looks like for each of us.

Whether our purpose comes from investing in relationships within our family, our friends, whether it is about our vocation or work, outreach, charity and care for others around us, or a combination of the above is something that we get to decide. The one thing we can be certain of, is that we most likely get out way more than we put in. Because when we feed our souls there is no stopping us.

2021 is not a year for delusional optimism. It is a year that will ask us to focus on our goals, to maintain perspective and to lead with courage. It is a year, more than ever that will ask us what is important and what we can do not just for ourselves but for others. It is a year that will make demands but that will return it in kind.

It is a year of meaningful optimism