Monday, February 2, 2009

The Optimist by Laurence Shorter

Well actually, at 325 pages, it's not that little . . .

Just how does one maintain a positive attitude in such a bleak and depressing world?

I picked up The Optimist  hoping to find out. It is a brisk and humorous read that follows British author and comedian Laurence Shorter on his yearlong multi-continent journey to find the meaning of optimism in a world where it seems pessimism rules.

“Ever since the outbreak of war in Iraq I had noticed optimism coming under attack. Any time I got too cheerful at a party or a dinner I would find myself ambushed and humiliated by some clever pessimist - usually in front of beautiful women.” p4.

“My father was such a committed pessimist he listened to four different news programmes every morning, in three different languages, to make sure he didn’t accidentally slip into feeling good” p7.

Being surrounded by pessimists was too much for Shorter to bear so he takes it upon himself to “track down the world’s optimists and ask them the truth.”

The title caught my eye as I was looking to advance my own ongoing search for meaning and optimism in life (who isn't?). What a treat to discover such a lighthearted and engaging book, part travelogue nonetheless, that gives me permission to look beyond the endless stream of pessimism and not be paralyzed by it. Because, really, what else is left to do? The evening news doesn't give much in the way of hope; the media are all scrambling to bring us details of the latest disaster; and not only can we feel grim about the economy and world peace but the state of the planet itself should have us all in a sweaty panic. 

Shorter interviews some very interesting people from the likes of Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu to Richard Branson to Rawandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza in an attempt to narrow down their beliefs and actions into something we can all understand and incorporate into our own lives. He is convinced that optimists are ‘suave and impressive’ . . . ‘happy and full of energy’ . . . ‘they jumped out of bed every morning and did life changing things’ . . . ‘They didn’t care about the news. They had nothing to prove. They were ideal human beings.’

He even tries to turn optimism into mathematical equations and charts in the quirky hope that everyone the world over will be able to tap into its wisdom. 

What Shorter finds, however, is so much more than that and yet so simple and available to everyone; it’s a mixture of experiences and perceptions and attitudes from country to country and person to person. Optimism, in the end, is what you make it. 

“. . . there’s always going to be dark and light. We’ll always make mistakes. There’s always going to be bad news. Some things will get better, and some things will get worse. That’s OK. It doesn’t bother me anymore. You just have to keep the plates spinning. Things are OK as they are."  p325                                                  

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