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Making the Case For Optimism

By Norman CousinsNorman Cousins, former editor of The Saturday Review, is on the faculty of the School of Medicine at UCLA. / January 13, 1989



THE beginning of a new year is a time for taking inventory. We try to reconcile assets and liabilities. We balance problems against prospects, apprehensions against anticipations. We move from a consideration of our personal situations to a view of where we stand as a nation and, indeed, to a view of where we stand as members of the human species. We consider the bounty that has been spread before us by the Creator. We contemplate the millions of factors in precise and exquisite combination that make life possible and then consider all the threats of our own making to that magnificent life-support system. We mourn the death of the rain forests of the Amazon, the lungs of a continent. We are appalled at the pile-up of chemicals that are poisoning the upper layers of our atmosphere, robbing the sun of its benevolence. We are outraged that the dominant energies of our species are going into the production of weapons which, if used, will convert the good earth into radioactive cinders.

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We view all these man-made insults to the Deity and ask whether it is possible to safeguard our planet and make it fit for human habitation. We wonder whether it is realistic to nourish hopes for the future. Is it possible to strike a balance sheet in favor of humanity? In short, is there a case for optimism?

I believe there is. The starting point for a better world and a better life is the belief that it is possible. Civilization begins in the imagination. The wild dream is the first step to reality. It is the direction finder by which people locate higher goals and discover their higher selves.

We can reject the notion that the human race is locked into a grim inevitability. No one, no matter how great his or her expertise, knows enough to be a pessimist. No one knows enough about the future to say that we have passed the point of no return. The unused capacity of the human mind may well represent our finest resource. The one thing that makes human beings unique is their ability to do something for the first time. It is within our means and our reach to outlaw war, to recognize that this world and everything in it belongs to the people who inhabit it, and to create the conditions under which humans neither have to kill nor be killed.

The highest exercise of philosophy and politics - indeed, the junction at which religion and social thought come together - is a belief in the idea of human progress. The dominant strain of philosophy in America - certainly in the early years of our nation - has been confidence in the ability of human beings not just to meet their problems but to bequeath a nobler estate to the next generation. The young men who founded this nation accepted Aquinas's idea that we ``advance gradually from the imperfect to the perfect.'' Pascal underscored this notion when he said that man is a creature capable not only of undergoing harsh experiences and ordeals but of comprehending them, thus adding to his growth. No group of thinkers has had more to say about the potentiality of human beings than Americans like Franklin, Jefferson, Emerson, William James, Holmes, Pierce, Dewey.

Yes, it is possible to be an optimist in today's world - without having to strain or synthesize. Optimism supplies its own energy. Optimism doesn't wait on facts. When we scrutinize history, what we find is more than a procession of flawed men. We find humans pursuing better conditions. We even find an occasional splash of grandeur. So long as this is so, there is strong ground for believing that if we apply our intelligence and our conscience to the challenges before us, we can, in the words of William Faulkner, not only survive but prevail.

But good things will not happen by themselves. There comes a time, said Jefferson, when the continued existence of American institutions depends on the day-to-day involvement and commitment of the American people themselves.

That time is now.