Interrogating Optimism

Optimism (n): hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something. – Oxford English

At some point I realized I’m a professional optimist. As with all of us working in the transformation field (let’s go with that broad title), a major part of my job is to see – and invite others to see – the opportunities for healing, growth, evolution, resolution and recovery, in situations where seeing this potential may be unlikely. Whether working with survivors and perpetrators of violence to helping leaders shape their organizational cultures, it might not be an overstatement to say that sitting in the seat of possibility, hope and optimism is the first requirement for someone in my role. That requirement – and the qualities it invites within me and my relationships, with clients and beyond – is a part of what has continued to draw me into this work.

Meanwhile, let’s face it: it is a difficult time to be an optimist. Russia/Ukraine and its implications for Europe and beyond. Israel/Palestine and its implications for the middle east and beyond. The state of democracy in the world’s most powerful nation and beyond. The escalating climate crisis, environmental degradation and species loss. The lasting global impacts of COVID-19. The rising cost of living. A widening, rather than diminishing, global inequality. Ungoverned AI. The effects of social media on our discourse, our attention, our wellbeing, and our children. Shall we go on?

These days I’m left with a profound sense of the intractability of so many of the problems we face. In fractal-like replication of what’s happening globally, I’m pained to admit that I have a frequent sense of uncertainty when I take an honest look at what is happening within many of the complex systems and institutions I work with directly. Systems and relationships that, in defiance of the effort of change-agents, are often wed to the status quo or even moving in retrograde. Given the seeming inertia of large systems in the face of all the love, skill, creativity and wisdom being thrown at them, I begin to wonder: to what extent is influencing substantive, sustainable change in the direction we want even possible? And what of the optimism that I have always brought to that effort – that force of disposition that has so often fueled my vocation? What meaning can I draw from the fact that creating or even influencing lasting positive, large-scale change is proving so hard? What role can I play in it, if any?

I sense that black and white thinking on this issue is unhelpful, with naïve optimism on one extreme and outright futility on the other. The reality is always more nuanced. I witness, for example:

  • Thousands of people within a large faith community and organizational system reject the introduction of restorative justice principles, rallying together to choose adversarial approaches instead. But smaller groups within the system embrace RJ principles and experience transformation in themselves and their community relationships as a result. Those people are now the target of political maneuvers to remove them from authority.
  • A family seeking information about the mysterious and sudden death of their child meet with key individuals but find few answers there. There is some peace of mind knowing that the causes they initially feared are unlikely to be true. But their painful search continues, with no immediate end in sight.
  • Implementing a restorative approach within a large institution is proceeding according to plan. Then a key leader within the institution resigns, risking the progress of the entire initiative. But this also invites others into greater leadership – and while plenty of uncertainty remains, there is continued progress.
  • Deeply divided community members agree to come together in a facilitated dialogue process, where they discover important new understanding and empathy for each other. Later, their positions harden, and lasting community divisions occur.

These anecdotes sound almost mundane to my ears. They are not the stuff of promotional videos or fundraising campaigns. But maybe that’s just the point. Could it be that accepting this more checkered, non-linear and complex reality is its own awakening of sorts? Is there a different sort of “optimism” to be found here between the shadows? Is optimism even an especially useful concept for us in the transformation field – or should it be replaced with something else? Commitment? Invitation? Embodiment? Non-attachment?

An important mentor of mine, Howard Zehr, would sometimes speak of restorative justice as being about “re-storying” our lives; that is, finding within adversity an ability to create a new story about our lives which does not negate or ignore the adversity, but actively includes its existence within a life-giving or hopeful narrative of our own choosing (see the postscript in his book “Transcending,” for example).  Over the coming year, my family is taking some time to travel and “world-school” together.   As I step out into something new and unfamiliar, I feel as though I’m embarking on a similar journey to re-narrate the ‘why’ behind transformative work and my role within it. I don’t have answers yet, but I hope the coming adventure will animate the question and further deepen my relationship to this cherished work.

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