Where to begin? I have frequently found myself crossing the line between optimism and pessimism in a year that has forced most of us into a position of ceaseless discomfort. Whether that discomfort is from being confined in a beige box for months on end, only seeing friends and family through a glitching, buffering, pixilated landscape that you can’t hold hands with; or whether it’s from the realisation that my generation has just seven years to undo the grave damage done to our planet by a century’s worth of human beings’ pollution and deforestation; or perhaps it’s witnessing the continual oppression and brutality against black minorities in a so-called equal society?
Take your pick. Any one of them should have been enough to make us all uncomfortable. But the question is, what do we do with that discomfort once it’s there – staring at us from TV screens and poking us in the ribs on public transport? I’m still figuring that one out myself. In a time where taking to the streets in crowds of protesters could be deadly, getting our voices heard seems more unachievable than ever. And in a climate where performative activism runs rife online, it can be difficult to identify genuine demonstrations of allyship and calls for change, from the acts of those who salivate over the chance to increase their own social capital. My point is, it is difficult to speak out against injustice in this new-norm that has inadvertently gagged the population.
In my early teens, nihilism attracted me more than most schools of thoughts. My natural inclination to overthink led to regular anxiety attacks and existential crises. Specifically, the concept of climate change and natural disasters terrified me. After an evening spent researching solar flares, volcanic eruptions and the gradual rise of global temperatures, I would experience insomnia brought on by reoccurring night terrors. Looking back, I don’t recognise the person who indulged in these destructive patterns, although her fears were understandable. I have learnt as I have grown older that life is a scary place, but anxiety without action is pointless. Surprisingly, I was not the only angst-ridden fifteen year old with a tendency for self-absorbed pity-parties, writing poetry about their own insignificance. A period of existential pessimism is almost a right of passage for 21st century teenagers. I’m only eighteen now, and I still write poetry, so I can’t really claim to be much older or wiser, but I’m glad to say I grew out of nihilism. If life was truly meaningless, I’d be a fool to care so much about so many things.
As a youngster, my phone screensaver was a photo taken of Earth from the Voyager 1 space probe. Pale Blue Dot, a small speck suspended in a single beam of light that held everything inside of it. At the time, I imagine I thought it would be a good, torturous reminder of how small my life was and how nothing I did had any impact. Years on and I still believe that to be true, but nowadays I wouldn’t purposefully prompt myself to remember each time I wanted to read a text message. In all honesty, insignificance is more of a comfort to me now, reassurance that there is so much more to the world than me and my first-world problems. But just because our individual lives are small, that does not make them meaningless.
The probability of each one of us existing is infinitely small – chance alone is the reason we are all here. As Richard Dawkins neatly wrote, “most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born… Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton… In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds.” On my first reading of this quote, it affirmed a sense of gratitude within me that I had always been too afraid to claim. It almost felt selfish to feel grateful for life when it is filled with so much heartbreak, cruelty and pain. But perhaps that is precisely why gratitude is necessary, we have been given the rare chance to change things, challenge institutions, defend the rights of others and stand in solidarity. With life, we were given the chance to love others.
However, it’s no secret that optimism is a mind state often reserved for the privileged few. Not all of us have the option of positive thinking when rates of poverty, inequality and loneliness are rising exponentially in the U.K. It may be worth mentioning however that an optimistic point of view goes further than solely benefiting the mental wellbeing of the individual. The Law of Attraction would argue that a positive and healthy view point will naturally draw you towards positive and healthy outcomes. Many studies have been conducted on the subject illustrating that a ‘glass-half-full’ mentality results in people who not only feel more satisfied in life, but believe that this outlook has led to a progression in both their professional and personal spheres.
In this clearly unplanned and wavering ramble of an essay that would make my old English teachers wince, I guess I’m trying to say that even when facing one of the most destabilising and distressing times in recent memory, we still have the choice to be optimistic. And I’m not talking about blind optimism that flies in the face of science and logic, but the optimism that inspires some sense of hope in a world that can often feel void of it. When we move through life with optimism, our activism becomes something full of promise and possibility. Isn’t that the point of it anyway? Not to dwell on the imposing structures of oppression that currently operate, but to fight and campaign for a more liberated future. Activism is not an angry rebellion at white, middle-aged men in power (although it involves a lot of that too) but an attempt at fighting for the future we could have if we only change our behaviour.
In my experience, the only way I have been able to stumble through this year is by obsessively holding on to optimism in any form I find it. Since March of this year, I have made gratitude and self-care major priorities and it has fundamentally changed how I experience my life. By thinking positively, I have found a renewed sense of purpose in my activism, approach creative endeavours with an energy I had lost and even find social situations easier to navigate. As an anxious teen, my Mum would often reminded me of ‘the power of positive thinking’ which I typically brushed off with a dismissive shrug, but now, as an eighteen year old living through the year 2020, I realise that she might have been on to something.